Herbal Medicine Week highlights the vital role of herbal medicine and herbalists, acknowledging both the traditional wisdom and scientific basis of this practice. Let’s take a philosophical look at the healing art of herbal medicine alongside the contribution of science that influences modern-day practice.
“Every home should have a herbalist.” – Dr. John Christopher
Some herbal medicines are not far removed from our everyday diet and play a bigger part in our day-to-day lives than you might imagine. Many foods were documented as early as 4000 BC as medicinal plants, recognised for their healing qualities, including garlic, pomegranate, fennel and oregano. (1) Many plants consumed as a food or beverage don’t conjure up the image of a ‘herb’ but have therapeutic value. Coffee is a perfect example!
There is the wisdom of traditional knowledge that comes with using home remedies, like keeping an array of herbal teas and knowing what to do with them for whatever mild symptom complaint that ails you. Medicinal plants belong in the kitchen as much as in the clinic, as household medicines for minor ills. (1) The home herbalist can safely use edible medicinal herbs such as garlic for immunity, chamomile for sleep or peppermint tea for digestive disturbances and wisely seeks guidance for stronger remedies that might feature in their home first aid kit.
“Nature itself is the best physician” – Hippocrates
Plants have powerful healing properties (2) and not just when they are consumed. Springtime is when we admire plants at their finest, with flowers in bloom and some of us may even find ourselves naturally drawn to gardening – a practice known to be good for the soul with many recognised health benefits. Even the weeds in the lawn like chickweed, red clover and dandelion can be used as herbal medicines. One of the reasons why many herbalists use traditional prescribing methods, such as the use of the whole plant part like the leaf, instead of a manufactured isolated constituent or active ingredient is the balance that nature provides. The perfect example of this is the Dandelion leaf, which has a diuretic action. Potassium can potentially become depleted in the body by this diuretic action, but potassium is a natural component of the dandelion leaf, reducing hypokalaemia (low potassium) as a side effect. (3) In this sense, the science of chemistry leads us to understand the traditional knowledge and use of the plant as botanical medicine.
“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.” – Paracelsus
In regards to medicine in general it can be said that there are things that science can’t yet explain. The same can be said for natural medicine where there is currently a real challenge of how to integrate science with traditional knowledge of Western Herbal Medicine, knowing that every medicinal herb is a unique weave of potentially thousands of chemicals patterned for plant diversity, growth, protection, health, and beauty. (3) Many pharmaceutical drugs have their origins in plant substances – in Europe, several traditional medicines have been scientifically and clinically trialled to explain their effectiveness, mode of action and possible adverse events for them to be safely combined with modern medicine and developed into modern registered drugs. (2)
While there is still much work to be done to advance the field of herbal medicine, we are fortunate to have the best of both worlds as herbalists, a blend of ancient and modern, traditional wisdom and science, a healing art and a medicinal practice. A custom made liquid herbal medicine is often one of the most significant tools used by our Naturopaths to facilitate change. As with all plants, herbal medicines are timeless, with a complexity that we can appreciate all the more as we gain further knowledge of their capacity to provide us with just the right ingredients for a healthier life.