What is Herbal Therapy?
Practitioners of herbal therapy (also known as herbalism, botanical medicine and phytotherapy) prescribe to their patients medicines made from parts of plants or from plant extracts. Practice of herbal therapy as a stand-alone system of health care is rare. It is mostly a component of whole systems such as ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, homeopathy and others.
Even western herbal medicine, now taught at bachelor level in some European universities (predominantly in the UK) is a vaguely defined concept, as climate specific and flora specific herbal practices have evolved in every society of the world and one can easily argue that there are several herbal medicine ‘systems’ in the West alone.
Herbal medicine is one of the oldest form of medicine known to man. There is archeological evidence which points to the use of medicinal plants 27,000 years ago. Ancient healers probably gathered initial knowledge of the healing qualities of plants from observing the behavior of animals, which nibble on healing plants when sick. Many drugs used today in modern healthcare are actually derivatives from herbal practice. A good example is aspirin. Its active ingredient is a form of salicylic acid found in Willow bark. Willow bark and willow leaves were used for pain relief in the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Assyria and Sumer.
Herbal medicine has for the most part developed outside the Western medical mainstream. Such alternative medical systems as ayurveda and traditional Chinese relied extensively on herbal knowledge while western herbal traditions were mostly preserved by enthusiasts and amateurs.
It was in the last decades of the twentieth century on the wave of interest in all kinds of alternative medicine, that herbalism regained popularity as a purportedly safer and more holistic method of healthcare.
Now, according to surveys, herbal remedies are one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine. There are trained herbal therapy professionals with university degrees and knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, while herbal preparations are widely sold in pharmacies.
It is important to distinguish between medicines prepared by professional herbalists mostly in private practice and ‘tailored’ to the individual patient and herbal supplements sold ‘over-the-counter’. Arguably, the former is much safer, since a private practice herbalist is individually responsible to the client and is able to assess what his client’s individual state and condition require in terms of medication.
Herbal supplements, while sometimes sold as a form of medicine do not normally come under the stringent regulations, which apply to industrially manufactured medicines since most pharmaceutical regulation authorities view them as a food.
Herbal supplements can be unsuitable to the consumer at times. They can cause allergies in certain individuals or be chemically incompatible with other medications, which the person may be taking at the time. There are other risks as well, all of which reputable herbalists assess in advance. There is also additional risk, as in some herbal additives the list of components, provided along with the product is inexact or incomplete.
It is always good to consult with one’s physician before starting to take food additives or even turning to professional private practice herbalists since herbal practice is normally used only as complementary medicine.
Most people turn to herbal medicine for three reasons: its reputation for safety, individual-oriented approach, and concentration on causes of the disease, rather than symptoms.
At the same time, it would be unfair and incorrect to think of herbal medicine as a strictly unconventional medical discipline. Many large pharmaceutical companies rely on the study of herbs in the development of many of their products. Many mainstream medical practitioners also study and from time to time apply herbal medicine, which has, probably, the greatest asset a medical discipline can have – a long history of happily healed patients.