The Evolution of Herbal Medicine
As early civilizations developed, they slowly left behind the hunting-and-gathering routine in favor of cultivation, building settlements, and developing a more cohesive social structure. In virtually every part of the world, herbs were part of the arsenal of healers, who combined spiritual and religious elements in their medicine.
Before test tubes and research labs, herbalists around the world used a decidedly nonscientific method called “the doctrine of signatures,” which held that plants (or plant parts) that looked like a human body part would benefit that part. Thus, medieval healers recommended the phallus-shaped mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) root for impotence and the brainy-looking walnut (Juglans regia) for mental disorders.
As people began to grow and gather herbs, they learned, through experience, trial-and-error, and plain old luck, which plants could be useful and which ought to be avoided.
To help them understand the complexities of their world, primitive people came up with a pantheon of gods, spirits, and supernatural forces, many of which were directly tied to the natural world. In time, people around the world began to realize that sickness and disease (or health and vitality, for that matter) were created by natural and not supernatural processes. At that point, the healing profession split into separate factions, with the physician on one side and the priest on the other.
In the early nineteenth century, scientists began extracting and modifying the active ingredients from plants and transforming those ingredients into synthetic drugs. Gradually, medicine — and popular tastes — shifted from herbals to pharmaceuticals.
In 1820, the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) published its first standards compendium, then consisting of only natural medicines. But things were changing, and in the United States and many other Western countries, herbal medicine was quickly moving from its place as the primary health care system to a type of supplemental care.
Many countries, including India and Germany, now consider many herbs to be medicines (and therefore regulate them as drugs). According to the latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO), ninety-two countries have an official registration system for herbal medicines, and seventeen of them have more than 1,000 herbal medicines registered.
In the United States, herbs have been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its predecessor agencies for the past 100 years. In 1994, the government passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which classified nearly all herbal products as dietary supplements — to be handled like foods, not medicines.