What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine, refers to the use of a plant's seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Long practiced outside of conventional medicine, herbalism is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show their value in the treatment and prevention of disease.
What is the history of herbal medicine?
Plants had been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. For example, ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal plant uses. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used systematically. Scientists found that people in different parts of the globe tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
In the early 19th century, when methods of chemical analysis first became available, scientists began extracting and modifying the active ingredients from plants. In the U.S. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds, beginning the transition from raw herbs to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of pharmaceuticals.
Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary health care. In the last 20 years in the United States, increasing public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in the use of herbal medicines. In Germany, roughly 600 - 700 plant-based medicines are available and are prescribed by approximately 70% of German physicians.
How do herbs work?
For most herbs, the specific ingredient that causes a therapeutic effect is not known with certainty. Whole herbs contain many chemical and nutritional ingredients, and it is likely that they work together to produce the desired medicinal effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment in which a plant grew will affect its components, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.
How are herbs used?
The use of herbal supplements for medicinal purposes has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. By recent law, all herbal and dietary supplements are required to adhere to strict manufacturing guidelines, called "Good Manufacturing Process" or GMP. It should be noted that strict manufacturing guidelines do not necessarily guarantee quality of the materials used by supplement makers and supplements -- unlike pharmaceutical drugs -- can be marketed without undergoing testing to prove their safety and effectiveness.
Herbs are often used in combination to enhance a specific therapeutic effect. Consumers must take many things into account when using herbs, such as the species and variety of the plant, the plant's habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants (including heavy metals and pesticides). For this reason, it is recommended you seek the care of a trained expert in herbal medicine to treat a medical condition, particularly when the condition requires prolonged care.