Principles and Traditions
No matter where in the world it originated, any school of traditional herbal medicine is based on a simple concept: that herbal remedies can be used to create — or re-create — a state of health within the body. Herbal healers categorize diseases according to a specific set of symptoms, then use their remedies to restore the patient to the state he was in before the disease struck.
A “Humor”ous Approach
Western herbalism evolved from the Greeks, who in turn were strongly influenced by Egyptian and Middle Eastern civilizations. The Greek system uses a system of “humors,” which are tied to four dynamic elements (air, earth, water, and fire). The Greeks believed that diseases were caused by an imbalance of these humors. The humors were part of an individual's nature and weren't necessarily good or bad. But if they got out of balance, illness would ensue.
The theory of the humors is similar to the basic beliefs of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India at roughly the same time. In Ayurveda, for example, there are three doshas, or body types, which correspond to the natural world and also reflect an individual's innate nature.
Actions Speak Louder
Traditional herbal medicine is also organized around each herb's physiological actions — what it does in the body. (Not surprisingly, modern herbalists do the same thing.) For example, the Greeks categorized their herbs as warming, drying, cooling, binding, and relaxing. The Chinese have classifications like purging, lubricating, stimulating, clearing, and calming. Not too far from our modern-day classifications, which you'll see as you walk down the aisle of any drug store: expectorants, laxatives, sedatives, stimulants, and so on.
And while some consumers might scoff at some traditional terminology, modern research shows that, for the most part, the ancients had it right. In fact, of the 100-plus known medicinal plant compounds used today, roughly 80 percent are used for purposes that are identical or very close to their traditional use.
One of the most powerful chemotherapy agents existing today comes from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). Yew trees were routinely discarded in logging enterprises until 1967, when somebody discovered a compound called taxol that could inhibit the division of cancerous cells. Today, taxol is used to treat breast, ovarian, and lung cancer.