Herbalism is sometimes criticised as a collection of home made remedies that are applied in a placebo fashion to one or more symptoms. This is only done of course if the ailment is not serious and that there is a conventional drug available to deal with any ‘real’ symptoms. It is often forgotten that herbal medicine provides a complete system of healing and disease prevention and is one of the oldest and most natural forms of medicine. Because herbal medicine is holistic medicine (medicine which considers the whole person, physically and psychological, rather than just the diseased part), it is able to look beyond the the symptoms to the underlying systemic imbalance. When correctly applied herbal medicine provides real and permanent solutions to real problems.
The use of herbs in medicine is as old as civilisation itself. Food and medicine were linked and many plants were eaten for their health giving properties. The first written records of herbs and their beneficial properties were established by the ancient Egyptians and most of our knowledge and use of herbs can be traced back to the Egyptian priests who also practised herbal medicine.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also carried out herbal medicine as did the Chinese and the Indians. In Britain the use of use of herbs developed along with the building of monasteries, each of which had their own herb garden for use in treating both the monks and local people. In some areas Druids and other Celtic healers are believed to have had an oral tradition of herbalism, where the medicine was mixed with both religion and ritual.
Over a period of time the herbal healers and the knowledge they had gained resulted in the writing of the first ‘herbals’. These writings rose in importance and distribution with the emergence of the printing press in the 15th century. Many herbalists set up their own apothecary shops including Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) whose most well known work is The Complete Herbal and English Physician, Enlarged, which was published in 1649. In 1812 Henry Potter started a business supplying herbs which was at a time when there was a huge knowledge of medicinal herbs gained from Britain, Europe, Middle East Asia and the Americas. Henry Potter’s most famous work is Potter’s Encyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations which is still published today.
Herbal medicine began to decline in the 19th century with the development of scientifically researched conventional medicine. In 1864 the National Association (later Institute) of Medical Herbalists was established in order to organise the training of herbal medicine practitioners and also to maintain standards of practice. From 1864 until the early part of the last century the Institute fought many attempts to have herbal medicine banned. In more recent times the public interest in herbal medicine has increased, largely due to a lack of confidence in the reliability of synthetic drugs and a mistrust of the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
Herbal Medicine can be regarded as the forerunner of modern pharmacology and today is used as an effective and more natural method of the treatment and prevention of illness. Nowhere is the efficacy of herbalism more evident than in the problems relating to the nervous system. Stress, anxiety, tension and depression are connected to most illnesses and are known to contribute to duodenal and gastric ulceration, irritable bowel syndrome and other gut related pathologies.
Herbalists rely on their knowledge of botanical remedies to rectify a type of human malfunction; this is the conflict between the human body’s voluntary nervous system and the autonomic processes which usually leads to illness. For example a herbalist will treat a dermatological problem using ‘alternatives’ that are specific to the the skin problem. They will then apply circulatory stimulants to assist in the removal of toxins from the area, with remedies to reinforce other of elimination such as the liver and kidneys. Orthodox medicine will approach this dermatological problem in a different way. It will treat the skin problem by suppressing the symptoms with steroids which will be of less benefit to the patient because of likely side effects, such as drug dependence, increased toxicity and drowsiness.
Herbs are free from toxicity and habituation. They are organic substances unlike man made synthetic chemicals and therefore they possess an affinity with the human body. Restoring a sense of well-being and relaxation is necessary for optimum health and for the process of self healing.
The choice of treatment should be based upon a thorough health assessment and the experience and training of a properly qualified herbal practitioner. The herbalist will then prepare and prescribe herbal remedies in a number of different forms which will include infusions, inhalants, suppositories and tablets.