I could spend a life time trying to define and talk about Herbalism and its ramifications, but that is not my intent here. You can buy very good books that can give you a more eloquent description than I can, Green Pharmacy by Barbara Griggs is one of the best books about the history of Herbalism. My objective is to give you some basic and perhaps practical knowledge about herbs, Herbalism, and its developmental history, something that you can learn and use in your daily life, not just full historical information.
WHAT IS HERBALISM ?
Herbalism is a respectable profession and has been for many thousands of years, it actually laid the foundations for modern medicine, botany, pharmacy, aromatherapy and chemistry, unfortunately our fascination with technology and other reasons, it was relegated to an empirical and semi-magic art.Fortunately with our modern age of industrial advances, and new way of living full of material expectations, we have created a society with many chronic conditions, some of which were almost unknown not long ago but that now come to haunt us.Thanks to these conditions, more and more people started seeking other ways of treating their ailments, rediscovering complementary medicine which has created the renaissance of Herbalism. Therefore herbs, herbalists and Herbalism are now in vogue. To meet the demand of the herbal renaissance there is a growing number of highly trained, well educated herbalists.From my viewpoint, as a Medical Herbalist, a herb is any plant material that may be used to improve, maintain or restore health and wholeness. It could be a herb in the botanical sense, a part of a plant such as flowers, bark, seeds or roots. Herbalism is both an art and a science, which has always mixed well with other treatments. Herbalism is thriving today using whole plants to treat whole people, and it is as relevant now as in the distant past, and it perhaps will be more relevant in the future now that has been re-discovered.
Herbs are not a cure all, but can be used as any other forms of medicine to treat any condition that is medically treatable. Medical Herbalism is re-establishing its relevance in our modern society as people are learning about wholeness.
As the attitudes and approaches to a healthier future, with Holistic Medicines continues to change, the need for a definition of health with more depth than just the absence of illness has emerged. We realize now that health is a balance of physical, mental, emotional and social well being.
The expectations of all types of medicine has changed, individuals are questioning more and more the nature of health, disease, as well as cures. As healers we now have to appreciate more than ever the mental, emotional, spiritual, social and especially the environmental aspects of our clients lives. We have to create a partnership in the healing process with our clients, rather than seeing them as passive recipients.
Herbal medicine fits in extremely well with the new expectations as it is a healing technique in tune with nature, which always treated the client as whole individuals, considering the physical, mental and emotional health, emphasizing the uniqueness of the individual.
Medical Herbalism is not an alternative medicine, as it is not an alternative to Psychiatry, Acupuncture or Dentistry etc., they complement each other. They all have strengths and weaknesses, therefore all medical modalities are complementary within the perspective of the patients needs.
Herbalism’s contribution to the healing structure are, its strong foundations, simplicity, great depth, effectiveness and yes its cost. That is why Herbalism has and always will thrive in all cultures, for thousands of years, Herbalism has been part of the history of healing.
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healing known. Herbalism is a common bond between the peoples and cultures of the world, Herbalism is not just the knowledge about healing plants, it is the experience and wisdom from the relationship with humans and plants. Antrophological evidence as recent as a few years ago, with the discovery of the“ ice man”, showed that he had medicinal herbs in his pouch, thus we can see that the ancient cultures had a great knowledge about plants and how to use them medicinally.
In my native Mexico the herbal tradition goes back thousands of years, and the Spanish Conquistadors were in shock to find out about all the medicinal herbal knowledge and how the different tribes had books (codex), paintings and sculptures representing healing activities with herbs, and about treatment for many conditions that were not cured in the old world at that time.
Herbalism in Mexico was a daily activity before the arrival of the Spaniards, and even now most of the families, wealthy or not, use medicinal herbs with knowledge transmitted from generation to generation.
The herbal tradition in Mexico is so rich that not only in different states is there different herbal medicine, sometimes using the same herb for different applications, but sometimes there is different herbal knowledge and herbal applications within one state, creating a very rich Herbalism. There are more than 5000 medicinal herbs in Mexico.
Herbal medicine has attained new prestige, thanks to the sponsorship of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is promoting the development of traditional medicines. They have taken the resolution to give “adequate importance to the utilization of traditional systems of medicine, with appropriate regulations as suited for their national health systems”.
The prestige of the WHO and the United Nations has done a great job to minimize the atmosphere of hostility which surrounded traditional medicines.
Traditional medicine is all the knowledge and practices used to prevent, diagnose and eliminate physical, mental, or social imbalance. Based on observation and experience handed down from generation to generation and by word of mouth or written.
These traditional medicines include highly developed systems such as Ayurveda (India), TCM traditional Chinese medicine, as well as other minor traditional medicines.
The WHO defines herbal medicines as “finished, labeled, medicinal products that contain as active ingredients, aerial or underground parts of plants or other plant material or combinations thereof, whether in the crude state or as a plant preparation”.
Another resolution taken by the WHO, supports herbal medicine as being of “great importance” to the health of the individual and their communities. It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population relies on traditional medicines for a significant part of their health care.
A 1993 Harvard Medical School survey on the use of complementary/alternative medicine found that only 3 percent of Americans were using therapeutic herbs. In 1994 the FDA estimated that 8 percent of Americans were using herbal products, in 1995 the Gallup Poll showed that 17 percent were using herbal products, and in 1997 it is estimated that an astonishing 40 percent of the american public uses herbs regularly.
Annual sales of herbal products were 1 billion in 1991, and in 1997 3.24 billion in the USA. The interest of herbal medicine has increased immensely in the last few years, which is great, unfortunately the herbal knowledge has not increased as rapid as the sales, meaning that there is a great number of people using herbs without the appropriate level of knowledge to use them, not only safely but effectively.
Most of us know people using herbal medicines just because they were recommended by a friend or relative, creating an unsafe and ineffective aura for herbal remedies. Which is capitalized by groups against herbal remedies in their blind pursuit to ban herbs or to control their sales and use. This creates an atmosphere of mistrust, and does not benefit any type of medicine, allopathic or traditional.
Therefore our responsibility is to learn the use of herbs to treat our conditions as well as our family’s, safety, and the effectiveness of herbs depends on the knowledge of when and how to use them. For me as a medical herbalist, my responsibility is to teach as much as possible, all facets of Herbal Medicine. I take this part of my job very seriously as my love for herbs propels me to make sure that herbs are used not only properly and safely, but that the herbal limitations are well known, so people do not make costly mistakes expecting the MIRACLE herbs to do a job that is not going to happen, therefore creating false curing expectations especially in individuals with the so called diseases of “Civilization” like cancer.
I think is about time to place herbal medicine in its proper place, to be used with the real expectations demonstrated by information accumulated by millennia, and now by scientific testing and assessments. The times to negate herbal effectiveness are long gone, the people have experimented with herbs and the results are there. It will be impossible to stop the progress of herbal medicine, we should be learning how to use it for what it is, not the best, pure or the only medical system, but a complementary medicine with benefits and limitations just like other medical systems. Once we can combine freely any of these complementary medicines with allopathy, not to determine which one is best and more effective, but to achieve the most important goal of all, to cure the patient, we would have done a great service to future generations.