Herbal Medicine: How does herbal medicine work and what can it do?
What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicine is an ancient system of medicine that utilises seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers of plants. Herbal medicine is sometimes referred to as phytomedicine or botanical medicine.
Unlike orthodox (western/modern) medicine, herbal medicine is not just based in science, but has a strong component of art. It balances the art & science of medicine.
The Skills of herbalists have developed long before the science-based machines that go ‘beep’, and the skills of the doctor had to be far greater than simply looking at the blood test results from the pathology lab.
The herbalist has to be able to look at the physical, mental and spiritual health of the patient to interpret their state of health. That is not to say that modern day herbalists do not use technology. Of course they do, they use auroscopes, stethoscopes, and a variety of other technology, which is commonly used by a GP (orthodox general practitioner or MD – medical doctor).
As a doctor of Chinese medicine I am often looking at X-rays, blood test results and other test results that patients present to me. I also send patients for specific tests. After all, why not use technology if it can be of assistance in the treatment of my patient?
As a scientist, I also like to use these types of tests to get scientific validation that my treatments are working – why not, after all if I can actually measure the success of treatment why not do so.
A herbalist is also uniquely qualified to make natural herbal skin and personal care products, as their knowledge include an in-depth understanding of the skin and its needs.
In short, herbal medicine is a valid, safe and effective system of medicine that combines the art and science of medicine and uses plant-based materials to treat in individual’s health problems.
What is the philosophy behind herbal medicine?
The basic principle behind herbal medicine is that your herbalist will assess you as a person and not a disease.
This simple statement has much more depth to it than it appears on the surface, because a patient has a disease, but is not that disease. That means the patient has developed a system wide imbalance that is reflected physically and/or mentally in the display of certain symptoms and attitudes.
The philosophical approach by the physician is to look at the patient as a person and consider the health issue in context of that individual.
For example, a patient may present with chronic headaches. Now the orthodox approach would be to do a series of tests to rule out any major pathologies and if there are no major diseases at work, such as tumours for example, the prescription will simply be one of pain relief – Aspirin, or a similar type of pharmaceutical drug.
An herbalist will assess a patient very differently. Yes, they will rule out any major or life threatening diseases also, but once these have been ruled out, the approach differs enormously.
Their approach will include a complete physical assessment of the body; it’s alignment, posture, musculo-skeletal functionality and inspect any old physical injuries, etc. They will assess an individual’s stress levels, work and family pressures and so on. A herbalist will also look at their patient’s diet, life style and levels of exercise. In addition they will ask questions about seemingly unrelated issues such as niggling signs and symptoms that at first do not seem relevant.
This type of consultation will provide the physician with an over-all picture of the person in front of them – not the disease, but the person. The individual.
The idea of this is that in herbal medicine, the herbal mixtures are individually formulated specifically for that person with the health issue(s). It’s specific, individual and personalized.
In short, an herbalist will ‘paint a health picture’ of you and employ herbal medicine to specifically treat you as an individual with a health problem.
What herbal medicine can treat and how safe and effective is it?
What can herbal medicine be used for?
Herbal medicine can be used in one of three ways:
- As the primary treatment for diseases and general health problems
- To preventing disease, and/or
- Complementary to other natural therapies or orthodox medicine
Up until about 200 years ago, herbal extracts, teas, baths, etc., were the primary forms of treatment available to doctors. In fact Pedanius Dioscorides an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist from Anazarbus, Cilicia, Asia Minor, wrote ‘the bible’ on herbs and early medicinal substances extracted from plants in the first century AD. To this day, pharmaceutical companies still use herbal medicines in their drugs (they just don’t advertise that fact). He described over 600 medicinal plants, their use and actions with respect to treating diseases.
A skilled herbalist is able to use medicinal plants to treat any disease known to man. Granted, some diseases such as cancer for example, are not treated easily, but are treatable with herbs. The limit is not the limitations of herbs, but the skill of the physician. And, let’s face it – that’s the same for any system of medicine.
In short, herbal medicine has been used since the dawn of man and is still as effective today as it ever was in treating virtually any disease safely and effectively.
What forms does herbal medicine come in?
Herbal medicines come in several forms of administration. These include:
- Extracts and tinctures
- Creams and ointments (therapeutic creams & ointments as well as herbal skin and personal care products)
- Herbal teas
- Hand, foot and sits baths
- Tables & pills
Once a herbalist has identified the underlying reasons for the manifestation of the disease a patient is afflicted by and has worked out the herbal mixture required to address this disorder, it is then necessary to establish the best way of administering the herbal medicines.
One would logically think that taking the herbs in their liquid or pill form might be the best and easiest way to take the medicine, however, often it may not be.
Without getting into the details and chemistry of how active constituents of medicinal herbs are extracted, let’s have a quick look at the ways in which herbs may be used.
Extracts and tinctures are generally made by using a certain amount of the dried or fresh herb and than mixing this with alcohol. The alcohol dissolves most of the plant’s constituents and suspends them in the alcohol. This is what is basically known as a tincture.
Alcohol will extract almost all the ingredients contained in the plant material. Unlike alcohol, water will extract fewer of the ingredients. Water is a universal solvent and many of the substances contained in herbs will dissolve into the water. However, alkaloids and fats may not. If some of the alkaloids are not wanted, then a tea or sits bath (water extraction) may be preferable.
Poultices are used externally. They are prepared by crushing the plant, usually the fresh plant or parts thereof, mixing it with a base cream, honey, yoghurt or similar substance, which is then applied directly to a specific part of the body. This type of treatment is particularly effective when treating wounds, bruising, joint and bone injuries, local infections, localized skin disorders, gangrene, etc. But can also be used to treat some chronic internal diseases of organs.
In short, there are different horses for courses. In other words, the type of application will depend on the specific needs of the individual patient and their particular type of disease. For example it might not be wise to treat a patient who suffers from alcoholism and liver cirrhosis with an alcohol-based herbal mixture…
Is herbal medicine a safe form of treatment?
Herbal medicine in the hands of a qualified, experienced herbalist is very safe and has minimal risk of side effects. However, just because herbs are natural does not automatically make them safe. Remember, Arsenic is natural and deadly.
Opium from the Poppy flower is highly addictive, lead is poisonous and so are most other heavy metals, yet they are all 100% natural substances. So don’t be fooled – natural is not necessarily harmless.
Having said that, herbal medicine is one of the safest forms of medicine and is very unlikely to cause harm if used as prescribed by a qualified herbalist.
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which are mainly synthetic, man-made substances, herbs are easily assimilated in our bodies. They are also easily eliminated and do not usually accumulate. A herbalist will also frequently change the herbs in a patient’s mix as their health picture changes.
In short, herbal medicine, if prescribed by a qualified and experienced herbalist, is one of the safest forms of treatment, causing few, if any, side effects.