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Herbalism, Western

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Over 2,500 years ago Hippocrates wrote, "In medicine one must pay attention not to plausible theorizing but to experience and reason together." This Greek physician and herbalist from the fourth century B.C. is considered the father of western medicine. He stressed the importance of diet, water quality, climate, and social environment in the development of disease. Hippocrates believed in treating the whole person, rather than merely isolating and treating symptoms. He recognized the innate capacity of the body to heal itself, and emphasized the importance of keen observation in the medical practice. He recommended simple herbal remedies to assist the body in restoring health.

Ancient Greek medicine around the fifth century B.C. was a fertile ground for contrasting philosophies and religions. Greek physicians were influenced by the accumulated medical knowledge from Egypt, Persia, and Babylon. Medical advances flourished and practitioners and scholars were free to study and practice without religious and secular constraints. In the fourth century B.C., Theophrastus wrote the Historia Plantarum, considered to be the founding text in the science of botany.

During the first century A.D. Dioscorides, a Greek physician who traveled with the Roman legions, produced five medical texts. His herbal text, known as the De Materia Medica is considered to be among the most influential of all western herbal texts. It became a standard reference for practitioners for the next 1,500 years. This influential book also included information on medicinal herbs and treatments that had been used for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Galen of Pergamon, who also lived in the first century A.D., was a Roman physician and student of anatomy and physiology. He authored a recipe book containing 130 antidotes and medicinal preparations. These elaborate mixtures, known as galenicals, sometimes included up to one hundred herbs and other substances. This complex approach to herbal medicine was a dramatic change from the simple remedies recommended by Hippocrates and employed by traditional folk healers. Galen developed a rigid system of medicine in which the physician, with his specialized knowledge of complex medical formulas, was considered the ultimate authority in matters of health care. The Galenic system, relying on theory and scholarship rather than observation, persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The galenical compounds, along with bloodletting, and purging, were among the drastic techniques practiced by the medical professionals during those times; however, traditional herbal healers persisted outside the mainstream medical system.

During the eighth century a medical school was established in Salerno, Italy, where the herbal knowledge accumulated by Arab physicians was preserved. The Arabian Muslims conducted extensive research on medicinal herbs found in Europe, Persia, India, and the Far East. Arab businessmen opened the first herbal pharmacies early in the ninth century. The Leech Book of Bald, the work of a Christian monk, was compiled in the tenth century. It preserved important medical writings that had survived from the work of physicians in ancient Greece and Rome.

The Middle Ages in Europe were a time of widespread death by plagues and pestilence. The Black Plague of 1348, particularly, and other health catastrophes in later years, claimed so many lives that survivors began to lose faith in the dominant Galenic medical system. Fortunately, the knowledge of traditional herbal medicine had not been lost. Medieval monks who cultivated extensive medicinal gardens on the monastery grounds, also patiently copied the ancient herbal and medical texts. Folk medicine as practiced in Europe by traditional healers persisted, even though many women herbalists were persecuted as witches and enemies of the Catholic church and their herbal arts were suppressed.

The growing spice trade and explorations to the New World introduced exotic plants, and a whole new realm of botanical medicines became available to Europeans. Following the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, a large number of herbal texts, also simply called herbals, became available for popular use. Among them were the beautifully illustrated works of the German botanists Otto Brunfels and Leonhard Fuchs published in 1530, and the Dutch herbal of Belgian physician Rembert Dodoens, a popular work that was later reproduced in English. In 1597, the physician and gardener John Gerard published one of the most famous of the English herbals, still in print today. Gerard's herbal, known as The Herball or General Historie of Plantes was not an original work. Much of the content was taken from the translated text of his Belgian predecessor Dodoens. Gerard did, however, include descriptions of some of the more than one thousand species of rare and exotic plants and English flora from his own garden.

The correspondence of astrology with herbs was taught by Arab physicians who regarded astrology as a science helpful in the selection of medicines and in the treatment of diseases. This approach to western herbalism was particularly evident in the herbal texts published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the most popular and controversial English herbals is The English Physician Enlarged published in 1653. The author, Nicholas Culpeper, was an apothecary by trade. He also published a translation of the Latin language London Pharmacopoeia into English. Culpeper was a nonconformist in loyalist England, and was determined to make medical knowledge more accessible to the apothecaries, the tradesmen who prescribed most of the herbal remedies. Culpeper's herbal was criticized by the medical establishment for its mix of magic and astrology with botanical medicine, but it became one of the most popular compendiums of botanical medicine of its day. Culpeper also accepted the so-called "Doctrine of Signatures," practiced by medieval monks in their medicinal gardens. This theory teaches that the appearance of plants is the clue to their curative powers. Plants were chosen for treatment of particular medical conditions based on their associations with the four natural elements and with a planet or sign. The place where the plant grows, its dominant physical feature, and the smell and taste of an herb determined the plant's signature. Culpeper's herbal is still in print in facsimile copies, and some pharmocognosists and herbalists in the twenty-first century voice the same criticisms that Culpeper's early critics did.

European colonists brought their herbal knowledge and plant specimens to settlements in North America where they learned from the indigenous Americans how to make use of numerous nutritive and medicinal plants, native to the New World. Many European medicinal plants escaped cultivation from the early settlements and have become naturalized throughout North America. The first record of Native American herbalism is found in the manuscript of the native Mexican Indian physician, Juan Badianus published in 1552. The American Folk tradition of herbalism developed as a blend of traditional European medicine and Native American herbalism. The pioneer necessity for self-reliance contributed to the perseverance of folk medicine well into the twentieth century.

In Europe in the seventeenth century, the alchemist Paracelsus changed the direction of western medicine with the introduction of chemical and mineral medicines. He was the son of a Swiss chemist and physician. Paracelsus began to apply chemicals, such as arsenic, mercury, sulfur, iron, and copper sulfate to treat disease. His chemical approach to the treatment of disease was a forerunner to the reliance in the twentieth century on chemical medicine as the orthodox treatment prescribed in mainstream medical practice.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought a renewed interest in the practice of western herbalism and the development of natural therapies and health care systems that ran counter to the mainstream methods of combating disease symptoms with synthetic pharmaceuticals.

In the late eighteenth century, the German physician Samuel Hahnemann developed a system of medicine known as homeopathy. This approach to healing embraces the philosophy of "like cures like." Homeopathy uses extremely diluted solutions of herbs, animal products, and chemicals that are believed to hold a "trace memory" or energetic imprint of the substance used. Homeopathic remedies are used to amplify the patient's symptoms with remedies that would act to produce the same symptom in a healthy person. Homeopathy holds that the symptoms of illness are evidence of the body's natural process of healing and eliminating the cause of the disease.

In 1895, the European medical system known as Naturopathy was introduced to the North America. Like homeopathy, this medical approach is based on the Hippocratic idea of eliminating disease by assisting the body's natural healing abilities. The naturopath uses nontoxic methods to assist the body's natural healing processes, including nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, proper diet, and exercise to restore health.

Western herbalism is regaining popularity at a time when the world is assaulted by the stress of overpopulation and development that threatens the natural biodiversity necessary for these valuable medicinal plants to survive. The American herb market is growing rapidly and increasing numbers of individuals are choosing alternative therapies over the mainstream allopathic western medicine. It is projected that by the year 2002 consumers will spend more than seven billion dollars a year on herbal products. An estimated 2,400 acres of native plant habitat are lost to development every day. As much as 29% of all plant life in North America is in danger of extinction, including some of the most important native medicinal plants, according to the 1997 World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Plants.

Though research into the efficacy and safety of traditional herbal remedies is increasing, it has been limited by the high costs of clinical studies and laboratory research, and by the fact that whole plants and their constituents are not generally patentable (therefore, there is no drug profit after market introduction). Outside the United States, herbalism has successfully combined with conventional medicine, and in some countries is fully integrated into the nations' health care systems. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 80% of the world's population continues to rely on herbal treatments. The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, promotes traditional herbal medicine for treatment of many local health problems, particularly in the third world where it is affordable and already well-integrated into the cultural fabric.

In the United States, the re-emergence in interest in holistic approaches to health care is evident. Citizens are demanding access to effective, safe, low-cost, natural medicine. Legislative and societal change is needed, however, before natural therapies can be fully integrated into the orthodox allopathic health care system and provide citizens with a wide range of choices for treatment. If the current trend continues, U. S. citizens will benefit from a choice among a variety of safe and effective medical treatments.

Herbs are generally defined as any plant or plant part that may be used for medicinal, nutritional, culinary, or other beneficial purposes. The active constituents of plants (if known) may be found in varying amounts in the root, stem, leaf, flower, and fruit, etc. of the plant. Herbs may be classified into many different categories. Some western herbalists categorize herbal remedies according to their strength, action, and characteristics. Categories may include sedatives, stimulants, laxatives, febrifuges (to reduce fever), and many others. One system of classification is based on a principle in traditional Chinese medicine that categorizes herbs into four classes: tonics, specifics, heroics, or cleansers and protectors. Within these broad classifications are the numerous medicinal actions of the whole herb which may be due to a specific chemical or combination of chemicals in the plant.

  • Tonics. Herbs in this classification are also known as alteratives in western herbalism. They are generally mild in their action and act slowly in the body, providing gentle stimulation and nutrition to specific organs and systems. Tonic herbs act over time to strengthen and nourish the whole body. These herbs are generally safe and may be used regularly, even in large quantities. These tonic herbs are known as "superior" remedies in traditional Chinese medicine. The therapeutic dose of tonic remedies is far removed from the possible toxic dose. American ginseng is an example of a tonic herb.
  • Specifics. Herbs in this classification are strong and specific in their therapeutic action. They are generally used for short periods of time in smaller dosages to treat acute conditions. Herbs classified as specifics are not used beyond the therapeutic treatment period. Echinacea is a specific herb.
  • Heroic. These herbs offer high potency but are potentially toxic, and should not be used in self-treatment. Because the therapeutic dosage may be close to the lethal dosage, these herbs are presented cautiously and closely monitored or avoided by trained clinicians. They should not be used continuously or without expert supervision. Poke (Phytolacca americana) is an example of a heroic remedy.
  • Cleansers and protectors. These herbs, plants, and plant tissues remove wastes and pollutants, while minimally affecting regular body processes. An example of a cleanser is pectin. Pectins are the water soluble substances that bind cell walls in plant tissues, and some believe that they help remove heavy metals and environmental toxins from the body.

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