Herbalism, or herbal medicine, is the use of plants to maintain health, prevent disease and manage illness. Plants have formed the basis for medical treatment through much of human history, and this is still broadly true today.
Herbal medicines are easy to find growing in the wild, and can be collected and used as required. Herbal apothecaries have long gathered medicinal plants from local environments, and imported herbs and spices from abroad, and through the ages, herbal knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and from teacher to apprentice.
Not only is the use of herbs to improve health the most ancient form of medicine, it remains the most common form of medicine in use today. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the Earth’s peoples rely on herbal medicines (at least in part) for their primary health care needs, and the use of herbal remedies is so widespread that most people do not even realize that they are using them. Common herbs and spices added to food frequently aid the digestion, for example, and it is common knowledge that dock leaves will ease a nettle sting, and that putting vinegar on a wasp sting will relieve the pain…
The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Native Americans were all herbalists, as were the ancient Greeks and Romans. Surgeons travelling with Roman armies spread herbal expertise throughout the Roman empire, and during the Middle Ages herbalism was practised and preserved in the monasteries of Britain and mainland Europe. In fact, before the establishment of universities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, monasteries served as medical schools. It was monks that copied and translated many of the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen, and in their Physic gardens they grew a rich variety of medicinal plants.
In the later Middle Ages, plants became subject to critical observation as interest in botany as a science grew in Europe, and spread to America by way of European conquest and colonization. In America, this imported herbal tradition was enhanced by the knowledge of indigenous people, and then re-exported back to Europe which in turn enhanced and expanded the therapeutic repertoire of herbalists and apothecaries. Even today, we find western herbalists using plants and methods influenced by many different cultures worldwide.
What is natural medicine?
We always have the choice in life; to be active or passive; positive or negative; take it or leave it. And so it is with health and wellbeing, both as a patient and a practitioner. We can decide how we want to approach health care: active or passive, engaged or disconnected, involved or dissociated...
Orthodox medicine has tended to take control, and “do” things to patients on the basis of strict diagnostic categories, narrow treatment protocols and standard formulae. The patient is rarely truly engaged or involved in clinical decision making, and their general sense of wellbeing may have little bearing on the choice of treatments offered.
Natural medicine, by contrast, considers the person as a whole, taking account of both home and work environments, energy level, happiness, and ease of body and mind – as well as the specific symptoms and signs of illness. And though the orthodox medical world increasingly takes account of the uniqueness of the individual, it often resorts to the use of aggressive drug regimes that damage liver and kidney, and that make it the third-largest cause of death in the Western world.
But this is not to say that science is a problem – far from it. Science is helping natural medicine to refine and enhance healing tools that have been in use for hundreds – even thousands – of years. Knowing how plants affect our physiology means that we can pinpoint more, and better, ways of using them therapeutically.
The industrialisation of medicine is driven by commerce, not by doctors. Taking control of our health by eating good food, taking exercise, sleeping well, and making time for fun, are all ways to counter the trend, and by adding some of the powerful healing plants and plant preparations that are now available, we have some of the most effective tools available for the maintenance of health and wellbeing, and in a form accessible to all.
The way ahead
Orthodox medicine is incredibly useful, but it has limitations (like everything else in life), and is being increasingly constrained by antibiotic resistance, public aversion to long-term drug treatment, and a lack of proper funding. The more we realise the power and effectiveness of nature’s own remedies, however, the more difference we can make to our own wellbeing because herbal medicine can fill the gaps where the mainstream has no answers.
Herbalists create realistic treatment plans that allow people to work their way back to good health by listening to their bodies and their intuition, and by using simple remedies and common sense approaches. By combining a few small, simple steps the herbal medicine practitioner is able to help the body make the physiological changes required for health. Common things are common, and it is rarely necessary to use harsh treatments to treat common illnesses effectively.
By understanding the physiology and underlying pathology that create the chronic conditions that are affecting more and more people, the medical herbalist can soothe and feed tissues that are suffering with safe, high quality, carefully produced herbal preparations that really do what they are supposed to do, and that allow the body to effect healing change at its own pace. Above all, herbal medicine is sustainable medicine that harms neither patient nor planet, and yet is able to restore health and wellbeing in remarkable ways.
The way ahead can be as good as we want it to be.