Herbal medicine was, until fairly recently, the only kind of medicine. Since human beings started recording their history — and probably long before that — nearly every imaginable remedy came from plants.
Yet somewhere along the line, medicine took a turn away from herbalism, and the two have been running on parallel tracks ever since. While “conventional” once was synonymous with “herbal,” it gradually came to mean something completely different.
As doctors and scientists began to make the connection between chemistry and disease, plants were scrutinized and synthesized and eventually replaced by pharmaceuticals, which could deliver swifter and more powerful results. Herbal remedies fell by the wayside, regarded by most people as quaint and folksy, something left to the fringe of modern medicine.
Yet as we developed more and more powerful weapons against disease — things like chemotherapy and radiation, steroidal painkillers and antibiotics — many people began searching for something else. What if you didn't need the big guns of conventional medicine? What if you didn't have cancer or cardiovascular disease and just wanted to avoid getting the flu? Or to stave off problems like cancer and heart disease before they even began?
Enter herbs — again. Unlike conventional drugs and treatments, herbs can treat chronic and acute conditions, but they're also effective tools for maintaining overall health. Many herbs boost the immune system; others naturally regulate hormone levels or lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
The traditions of herbal medicine are grounded in a basic belief: that the body is naturally healthy and balanced, and that it can remain that way — or be eased back into its balanced position — through the judicious use of remedies like herbs. Like human beings, plants are natural and complete organisms that have adapted and survived over the millennia by developing natural defenses against their enemies. Herbal medicine harnesses those properties to create remedies that can help you, too.
The last several years have seen a resurgence of herbal medicine, as millions of people search for gentle, natural alternatives to conventional medicine. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 65 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary health care. In Germany, roughly 600 to 700 plant-based medicines are available and are prescribed by approximately 70 percent of German physicians. Herbal remedies are recognized as legitimate forms of medicine in most countries today.
In the United States, herbalism is classified as a type of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, a group of practices that can be used as adjuncts to conventional medical care. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) now support clinical trials on specific herbs. Millions of Americans — more than a third of all adults — are using herbs and other types of CAM. NCCAM reports that roughly one-fifth of U.S. adults incorporate herbs and other natural agents into their health care routines. Of the most commonly used products, nine out of ten were herbs (the only non-herb was fish oil).
Yet herbs and herbal remedies are the subject of much debate, as herbal practitioners, medical doctors, scientists, and politicians wrestle with some important questions: How should herbs be treated? Are they drugs, comparable to prescription and nonprescription pharmaceuticals? Or are they dietary supplements, a kind of glorified food product more like vitamins and minerals? Should herbs be completely deconstructed, with each individual compound identified and quantified? Because they contain so many chemicals, each with a specific action that can trigger complex physiological responses — and potentially create side effects or problems when combined with conventional drugs — should herbal products carry warning labels? Officially, herbs are viewed and monitored as supplements, without the requirement for such tight scrutiny or labeling, but the case is far from closed.
Most experts agree that herbs possess unique yet tangible benefits, and that they can be used to complement conventional treatments and enhance overall health. Using herbs safely and effectively means understanding their powers — and limitations — and treating them like the medicines they are.