Herbalism, also known as Phytotherapy, is the use of plants to treat common ailments and promote wellness. It is the oldest form of medicinal healing known to man.
Although it is classified as an alternative therapy, it is the most widely practiced form of medicine used worldwide, with over 80% of the world’s population relying on herbs for health. Currently over 50% of all new pharmaceutical prescriptions contain at least one ingredient either produced directly from plants or discovered from plant sources and later synthesized. 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.
The history of herbalism
Humans have been using herbs in medicine for as far back as we can currently trace, across all continents, cultures and eras. Some experts even believe herbs were being used for medical purposes long before the first homo sapiens walked the earth. Archeologists 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 medicine extends even further than man or his ancestors.
With the advent of exploration and travel, healing practices and medical knowledge soon began to spread across the world and between cultures. 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 Organization 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 industrialized countries such as Canada, Italy, Germany and France, 70-90% of the population have used traditional medicine.
The global market for traditional remedies is thought to be around $83 billion a year.
Modern medicine: Modern western medicine has its routes 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 synthesized. 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.
- Infusions: this is when teas flowers, leaves, roots, berries, seeds and barks are ground down, placed in little sack of muslin and soaked in boiled water.
- 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.
- 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.
Regulation of herbal medicine
You are always advised to consult your GP before taking a herbal remedy.