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Green Earth :: Herbal Medicine Fundamentals

Herbal Medicine Fundamentals

What is an herb?

Medicinally, an herb is any plant part or plant used for its therapeutic value. Yet, many of the world's herbal traditions also include mineral and animal substances as "herbal medicine".

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine is the art and science of using herbs for promoting health and preventing and treating illness. It has persisted as the world's primary form of medicine since the beginning of time, with a written history more than 5,000 years old. While the use of herbs in America has been overshadowed by dependence on modern drugs the last 100 years, the World Health Organization of the United Nations estimates that 75% of the world's population still rely primarily upon traditional healing practices, most of which is herbal medicine.

How are herbs different from pharmaceuticals?

Most pharmaceutical drugs are single chemical entities that are highly refined and purified and are often synthesized. In 1987 about 85% of modern drugs were originally derived from plants. Currently, only about 15% of drugs are derived from plants. In contrast, herbal medicines are prepared from living or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated compounds. Science is beginning to demonstrate that the safety and effectiveness of herbs is often related to the synergy of its many constituents.

How is herbal medicine different from conventional medicine?

The primary focus of the herbalist is to treat people as individuals irrespective of the disease or condition they have and to stimulate the body's innate healing capacity through the use of such interventions as herbs, diet and lifestyle. The primary focus of physicians is to attack diseases using strong chemicals that can be difficult for the body to process, or through surgical interventions. Not only does this ignore the unique makeup of the individual, but many patients under conventional care suffer from side effects that are as bad as the condition being treated. The philisophical difference between herbalists and conventional physicians has profound significance.

How can I know if a particular herb will work for me?

Medicine is an art, not just a science. No one can predict which herb will work best for every individual in all situations. This can only come with educated self-experimentationand experience or by seeking the assistance of those who are knowledgeable in clinical herbal medicine. The simpler the condition, the easier it is to find a solution. The more complicated the condition, the greater the need there is to seek expert advise.

How long does it take for herbs to be effective?

The success of herbal treatment always depends upon a variety of factors including how long the condition existed, the severity of the condition, the dosage and mode of administration of the herb(s) and how diligently treatment plans are followed. It can be as short as 5-10 minutes when using a spoonful of herbal bitters for gas and bloating; 20 minutes when soaking in a bath with rosemary tea for a headache; days when using tonics to build energy; or months to correct long-standing gynecological imbalances. Difficult chronic conditions can often take years to reverse.

How safe are herbs?

It depends on the herb. Most herbs sold as dietary supplements are very safe. When used appropriately, the majority of herbs used by practitioners have no adverse side effects. A review of the traditional and scientific literature worldwide demonstrates that serious side effects from the use of herbal medicines are rare. According to noted pharmacognosist Norman Farnsworth:

"Based on published reports, side effects or toxic reactions associated with herbal medicines in any form are rare. In fact, of all classes of substances reported to cause toxicities of sufficient magnitude to be reported in the United States, plants are the least problematic."

As herbs become more widely used, an important part of making sure they are safe and effective is to understand the best way to use herbs. Don't use them as a substitute for a drug. Use them to help your body heal itself. This is how David Hoffman explains herbs in his book "The New Holistic Herbal":

"Herbal medicine in it's holistic sense recognizes humanity as an expression of life, enlivened with life-force, and herbs can work with this whole being, not just specific symptoms. They do function through biochemical interactions and specific applications, but they do so in a way that augments the vital processes of the body. On the biochemical level, the numerous ingredients in a herb work in a synergistic way, with elements involved in the process that chemotherapy would not even consider as being active...

"If we just looked at herbs as a source of valuable chemicals we would limit their healing power, for beyond the physical level they can also work on the level of the life-force. As they heal our bodies, they may also heal our hearts and minds, for they open the body to a clear flow of integrating and synergizing vital energy."

Learn to use herbs wisely. Remember, herbs are not "green drugs."