Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is the oldest and still the most widely used system of medicine in the world today. It is medicine made exclusively from plants. It is used in all societies and is common to all cultures.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that healing herbs are the primary medicines for two thirds of the world's population. 25 - 30 % of all prescriptions still contain active constituents derived from plants, and the average doctor writes eight herb based prescriptions daily. The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialised societies.

Herbal medicine is increasingly being validated by scientific investigation which seeks to understand the active chemistry of the plant. Many modern pharmaceuticals have been modelled on, or derived from chemicals found in plants. An example is the heart medication digoxin derived from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).The word drug comes from the early German "droge", meaning to dry, as in drying herbs, which is the first step in processing herbs into medicines. Aspirin was originally created from two healing herbs, willow bark and meadowsweet. In fact meadowsweet's old genus name, Spirea is the linguistic root to the name asprin.

Forms of herbs

Healing herbs can be used in various forms such as teas, tisane /baths/ pills, tinctures, infusions, extracts, poultices, ointments, oils, compresses, salves and creams.

Herbal Teas

There are two methods of making herbal teas, infusion and decoction:

  • Infusions are hot water extracts made from herbs with medicinal constituents in their flowers, leaves and stems such as chamomile, mint, green and black tea among others.
  • Decoction is boiling tougher parts, such as roots or bark for a longer period of time such as ginger or cinnamon tea.

Herbal tinctures are extracts that are made with alcohol instead of water. Alcohol extracts of various medicinal herbs and plants remain potent longer and are stronger than teas. Herbalists/ naturopaths often mix several herbal tinctures to form an individualised prescription for each patient.

Fluid extracts are stronger than herbal tinctures, and can be made with alcohol or glycerine. Various types of extracts are available such as solid extracts of licorice and hawthorne. Cold extracts are made with cold water to effectively preserve the most volatile ingredients and extract only minor amounts of mineral salts and bitter principles.

Fresh Juices of plants/ herbs are simply prepared by juicing them. This is an excellent way of getting vitamins and minerals from the plant; but the juice must be taken within a short time after being pressing since the vitamin content declines rapidly due to oxidation.

Herbal poultices are used externally to treat affected skin areas. They are generally prepared fresh for each use by crushing the medicinal parts of the plants to a pulpy mass. If dried herbs are used, they are generally mixed in with a substance such as water, vegetable fat before they it is applied to the skin. They have the shortest life span of any herbal remedy.

Powdered herbs and capsules. Dried powdered herbs can be packed into tablets and gelatine capsules. Capsules are a convenient way to carry herbs and also to take herbs that are unpleasant. Syrups are another way to take herbs, especially for administering medicines to children. Herbal ointments or salve is a semi-solid preparation made to be applied to the skin.

Essential oils are used for relaxation include such herbs as lavender and lemon and eucalyptus for colds. Essential oils are extractions of volatile liquid plant materials and other aromatic compounds from plants. These plant oils may be used internally in some forms of herbal medicine as well as in aromatherapy. In naturopathic treatment essential oils have proven to be highly effective in the treatment of headaches and muscle soreness, joint pain and certain skin diseases.

The danger of self prescribing herbal medicine

A common misconception about the use of 'natural' products/ herbs in general, is that 'natural' equals safe. However many plants have chemical defence mechanisms against predators that can have adverse or lethal effects on humans.

Herbs can also have undesirable side-effects just as pharmaceutical products can. These problems are exacerbated by lack of control over dosage and purity. Furthermore if given in conjunction with drugs, there is risk of 'summation', where the herb and the drug have similar actions and together can produce an 'overdose'.

This is where your naturopath or herbalist would be most helpful as they would not only have the knowledge of the right herbs to use, but also would be aware of contraindications of the herbs chosen with other medicines and the best times to take them. Naturopaths generally prescribe specific single herbs or combinations of herbs to be taken in the forms described above along with other natural modalities.

Most naturopaths use parts of plants, such as the roots or leaves but do not isolate particular phytochemicals as the synergy of the combined substances enhnces the efficacy and dilutes toxicity, for example - Vitamin C from a freshly cut orange is more complete and balanced for the body than the Vitamin C purchased off the shelf which is often a pharmaceutical form.

Is Herbal Medicine Safe?

Herbal medicine is very safe and effective when prescribed by a fully qualified herbal practitioner.

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