Herbalism is the ancient tradition of studying and using herbs for their healing properties.
The term 'herb' refers to all plant parts, including the stems, leaves, fruit, flowers, roots, bark and seeds. Human beings have been harnessing the healing properties of herbs for thousands of years.
In the west, traditional herbalism has been superseded by modern healthcare systems, based on scientific research and regulated by a rigid framework of rules. However, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that 80% of the third world still use traditional herbalism as their main method of healthcare.
Keep reading to find out more about herbal remedies and what to expect when visiting a herbalist.
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Types of herbalism
The term 'herbalism' covers a variety of medical practices across the globe, including:
- Traditional Chinese medicine - This works on the principal that herbs can help to improve the flow of qi (energy) in our bodies. Take a look at our Chinese herbal medicine page to find out more.
- Kampo - A Japanese healing tradition similar to Chinese medicine, which uses herbs to restore balance in the body.
- Traditional Tibetan medicine - This uses a combination of acupuncture, nutrition and herbal remedies to restore the body to health.
- Ayurveda - An Indian health-care tradition that combines yoga, nutrition, massage, meditation and herbal remedies.
- Unani-tibb - An Indian tradition that places emphasis on restoring health by focusing on healing the patient from within.
- Western herbal medicine - Regulated by WHO, this form of medicine uses a combination of traditional methods and modern scientific research.
The history of herbalism
Humans have been using herbs in medicine for as far back as we can currently trace, across all continents and cultures. Some experts even believe herbs were being used for medical purposes long before the first homo sapiens walked the earth.
Archaeologists working on sites in modern day Iraq found evidence to suggest that Neanderthals, a very early relative of modern man, were using a number of different herbs for medicinal purposes as long as 60,000 years ago.
Even more astoundingly, according to some observations, the use of herbal remedies extends even further than man or his ancestors.
Herbalism and spirituality have always been tightly entwined throughout the history of humanity. Some experts believe the concept of spirituality emerged from primitive tribes' fear and awe of the uncontrollable powers of nature.
Some herbs were known to induce powerful effects, whether of a healing, calming, stimulating or hallucinogenic nature. It was these properties that made herbal remedies seem 'otherworldly'. Many cultures came to the conclusion that, because of their apparent supernatural powers, herbs were in fact gifts from the gods.
Ancient Egyptian herbalism
The Ancient Egyptians are today well known as a civilization of keen physicians. They created the Papyrus Ebers in 1500 BC, a medical document listing over 876 herbal prescriptions made up of around 500 different natural substances.
Cloves of garlic have been found in many Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen, which are thought to have been used to treat respiratory problems such as asthma.
With the advent of exploration and travel, healing practices and medical knowledge soon began to spread across the world. Information and practices were passed around both orally and via pharmacopeias, which are volumes listing medicines along with their uses and direction for application.
World Health Organisation statistics
- Traditional herbal medicines are still used in every country in the world to some degree.
- 70-95% of people in third world countries use traditional medicine practice, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
- In many industrialised countries such as Canada, Italy, Germany and France, 70-90% of the population has used traditional medicine.
- The global market for traditional herbal remedies is thought to be around $83 billion a year.
Modern western medicine has its roots in traditional herbalism. Almost a quarter of all modern drugs are derived from natural substances. The difference is that now certain chemicals are isolated and extracted from the herb before being synthesised. Herbalists disagree with this extraction because they believe all of the elements within a plant are in balance - something that is important in the healing process.
Medical herbalism combines traditional healing techniques and ingredients with modern scientific research. It is monitored more carefully and considered more stringent than traditional herbalism.
To find out more, follow the link to western herbal medicine.
Seeing a herbalist - what to expect
The best way to ensure you are getting the most from a herbal remedy is to visit a professional herbalist. A herbalist is someone who is trained in herbalism and will be able to recommend the right herbal remedy for you.
On your first visit your herbalist will likely ask you some questions about your medical history, diet, overall health and lifestyle. They may also carry out a physical examination. This may involve feeling your pulse, looking at your skin and nail health, looking at your eyes and examining your abdomen.
Your herbalist will then decide which herbal remedy would be best suited to your needs. There are several ways herbal medicine can be taken, look below for some common forms.
Herbal medicines come in many different forms, including:
Infusions - This is when teas flowers, leaves, roots, berries, seeds and barks are ground down, placed in a little sack of muslin and soaked in boiled water (aka tea).
Syrups - These are made by soaking certain herbs in pots of honey over long periods of time. The herb-infused honey can then be added to hot water to create a drink, they can be swallowed from the spoon, or they can be dabbed onto burns and wounds with a cloth.
Lotions/creams - Made from herb infused oils and water, lotions are used to rub on the skin.
Compression - When a soft cloth soaked in a hot or cold herb infusion is applied to skin.
Poultices - Used in any situation where taking medicine orally could be a problem. Poultices are cloths smeared with herbal ingredients and applied to areas of inflammation.
Oils - Infused with herbs, oils can be used as the basis for other forms of medication such as creams.
Powders - These can be compressed into capsules or used loose.
Your herbalist will usually ask to see you again, around two to four weeks after you begin treatment. This allows them to see how the herbal remedy is working. If you start having any adverse reactions, stop taking the remedy immediately. Tell your herbalist and if necessary consult your doctor.
Regulation of herbal medicine
In 2011, the EU introduced new rules designed to protect consumers from the potentially harmful side effects of some over-the-counter herbal medicines. Under the new regulations, only quality-controlled and long-established medicines can be sold.
Prior to the 2011 amendments, the commercial use of herbal medicine in the UK was regulated by the rather outdated 1968 Medicines Act. This was drawn up at a time where very few herbal remedies were available over the counter.
Authorities now believe that consumers need to be made more aware of the powerful effects of some natural remedies, and the reactions some can have with prescribed medication.
In order to administer unlicensed herbal medicines, a herbalist must register their product with the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR). This gives the patients/customer full control over what herbs they take.
You are always advised to consult your GP before taking a herbal remedy.
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