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How Does Herbal Medicine Work

What are the origins of herbal medicine?

People have used extracts from plants for thousands of years to treat their ills, the Egyptians were using herbal remedies some 3500 years ago, while there is evidence other ancient peoples, such as the Persians, the Chinese, the Indians and the people of the Americas have used medicinal herbs for centuries.

No one knows, however, who or where the first people used plants to make themselves feel better. In fact, there is evidence that apes and other animals seek out certain types of plant when they feel ill, so it could be older than human history.

More than eighty percent of the world’s population uses herbal medicines in one form or another from China to Australia and from America and Europe to Africa. Western herbalism evolved from the work of apothecaries and the alchemists going as far back as the Romans.

Herbal folklore slowly evolved over the centuries with lotions and potions being passed down through families. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century led to an explosion in herbal medicine as recipes for treatments could be copied and used by anyone who could read.

By the seventeenth century, Nicholas Culpeper had put together a book of herbal remedies, which became very popular. In his book, Culpeper built on the idea of the ‘doctrine of signatures’ which the early chemist Paracelsus had first though of. He believed that how a plant looked provided clues as to what ailment it would cure.

By 1985, the World Health Organisation was saying that herbal remedies are an important part of healthcare. In continental Europe it has become very common although its use is only gradually increasing in the UK.

How does herbal medicine work?

Herbalists try to find the underlying cause of an illness rather than treat the individual symptoms. The believe that the use of tinctures and herbal tonics can help the body to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance and activating the body’s ‘life force’.

Herbal ‘synergy’ is, herbalists believe, the key principle of herbal medicine. Their remedies are extracted from leaves, petals and roots of plants and are a complex mixture of lots of different compounds. While a conventional pharmaceutical will usually be a single active ingredient, the idea of herbal ‘synergy’ explains that the hundreds if not thousands of constituents of a plant extract all work together to treat an illness.

For example, ephedrine an early antiasthma drug was first isolated from the herb Ephedra, traditionally used to treat chest complaints. One of the side-effects of ephedrine is that it raises the blood pressure. Herbalists point out that among the many compounds found in the plant itself is one that lowers blood pressure. So, the herbal remedy contains a compound to treat the chest but also to counteract the side effects of that compound.

Another example of herbal synergy can be found in the plant meadowsweet, which is used for stomach complains. The plant contains salicyclic acid which is closely related to aspirin. The compound can cause internal bleeding from the stomach wall but meadowseet contain compounds called polyphenols, which protect the stomach.

What happens during a treatment?

When you consult a herbalist, they will usually take about an hour to discuss your problem, your medical history, your diet and lifestyle and build up a picture of the ‘whole’ person.

The herbalist will then use their knowledge of plants and their different effects on the body to find a mixture that will treat the underlying cause of a problem.

The herbalist will usually give you enough of the remedy, or tell you where to buy it, to take away with you to use before your next consultation. You can expect a lot of herbal remedies to taste nasty owing to the bitter compounds found in many plant extracts.

If appropriate a herbalist may suggest you see a doctor to discuss your problem further.

What can herbal medicine help?

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Certain forms of depression
  • Cold sores
  • Digestive problems
  • Eczema
  • Hayfever and allergies
  • Menstrual and menopause problems

Where’s the evidence?

There have been numerous trials that demonstrate the effectiveness of some herbal remedies. For instance, in a research paper in the medical journal The Lancet, St John’s Wort was reported as being just as effective at treating depression as some pharmaceutical antidepressants. Echinacea, a traditional remedy of the North American Indians, too has been shown to boost the immune system and allegedly staves off all kinds of illnesses, although there are concerns about the safety of repeated long-term use.

Other herbal remedies such as garlic and ginger have been claimed to help with all sorts of problems from high cholesterol and heart disease to digestive complaints. There are many research papers that show positive effects but also some that show the research to be inconclusive.

Context in conventional medicine

It may seem strange, but many of the conventional pharmaceuticals we take today have their roots in herbal medicine. One herbal remedy for fever gave us aspirin (from willow bark), while a plant used to treat chest complaints was developed into the asthma drug salbutamol once scientists had extracted the active ingredient from the plants. Digoxin – the heart drug – comes from the poisonous foxglove and quinine – once used to treat malaria and an ingredient in tonic water – originally came from the cinchona bark. The painkiller morphine was extracted from the opium poppy.

Mainstream doctors in the UK tend to side with the pharmaceutical approach instead though because of the presence of the unknowns associated with herbal remedies. For instance, herbal remedies by their nature are not pure compounds and have been found to contain dangerous toxins in some studies.

While most manufacturers of herbal products try to maintain standards there are unscrupulous traders who may provide herbalists with poor quality remedies. Worse still, if you are buying herbal remedies for yourself through a health-food shop or elsewhere there is an overwhelming range of products available and no certain guarantee of quality. At best some of these products may simply have been so diluted down that they are effectively useless at worst they may be so strong as to risk patients overdosing on certain ingredients, or may even be contaminated with poisonous metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Herbal remedies imported from the East have been found to contain dangerous levels of these elements.

The government is currently considering passing laws that will bring herbal remedies in to line with pharmaceuticals so that they have to pass stringent clinical tests and quality controls before they can be sold. Herbalists worry that this will mean they will not be able to use traditional remedies that have proved successful over centuries because of the costs of obtaining a licence. Many doctors in the mainstream, however, hope such laws will bring herbal medicine into line with accepted safety and efficacy standards.