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What is herbal medicine?

Herbs have played a major part in medicine for thousands of years.

Every culture and every medicinal system, from Ayurveda to Traditional Chinese Medicine, have used herbs for therapeutic purposes. There are thousands of herbs with thousands of different uses, many of which are used in conventional medicine as well as for natural remedies.

Herbs are widely used today, in teas, vitamins and natural supplements. While the benefits of herbal medicine are vast, it is important to understand the basis of herbal medicine and to recognize that some herbs can have negative impacts on health.

What is the history of herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine has its roots in every culture around the world, from the Greeks, to the Celts, the Romans to the Arabs, and the Chinese to the Indians.

Western herbalism dates back to ancient Egypt, where records of garlic and juniper used for medicinal purposes were found from as early as 1700 B.C. By 100 B.C., the Greeks had developed a comprehensive philosophy of herbal medicine that related different herbs to different temperaments, seasons and elements such as earth, air, fire and water. The Romans took the Greek theories of medicine and added to them, creating a wealth of medical practices, some of which are still used today.

Eastern herbalism mainly comes from the traditions of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). These two medicinal systems use herbs to bring the body back in balance so that it can heal itself. In TCM, this means restoring qi, or "life energy," and balancing the yin forces with the yang forces. Both traditions incorporate knowledge of the elements, the seasons and parts of the body into their herbal treatments.

Other traditions such as Native Americans from both North America and South America have used herbs in medicine. Many of these traditions incorporate ritual and magic into their practices with the use of a shaman, or medicine man.

What are the principles of herbal medicine?

Herbalism is designed to use herbs to treat the underlying causes of disease in a client. Instead of looking at the signs and symptoms and then treating the disease, herbalists look at the whole picture, from lifestyle to physical stressor, in order to prescribe the right treatment.

Once the cause of a condition is discovered, the herb is prescribed to restore the body's natural balance. Herbalism is understanding how different herbs work with the body to restore balance and health.

Herbs are also used in many traditions as a preventative action to boost immune function and promote general wellbeing before any disease occurs.

While many pharmaceutical companies use the active ingredients found in herbs in their products, herbalists believe in something called "herbal synergy," which means that in order for the herb to be as safe and effective as possible, it is important to use the whole plant instead of extracting only the active ingredients. For instance, meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. While aspirin alone often causes issues in people who have sensitive stomachs, meadowsweet also contains tannin and mucilage, which work to protect the stomach from the salicylic acid. 1

Are there different types of herbal medicine?

There are many different types of herbal medicine with roots in many different traditions. For more information on different medicinal systems that use herbs, see Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

How are herbs prepared?

Decoctions are made by boiling barks, roots and berries to extract the active ingredients. The liquid is strained and can be taken either hot or cold.

Tinctures are made by soaking herbs in water and alcohol to extract and preserve the active ingredients. The liquid is then stored in small bottles and taken with water.

Infusions are made like teas. Boiling water is poured over the herb and is left to sit for about 10 minutes, creating a liquid to be taken as a hot drink or medicine.

Infused Oils are made with chopped herbs and oil. The mixture is either placed in a bowl over boiling water, or left to infuse in the sunlight.

Creams are made from herbs and either oil or fat. The mixture simmers for about three hours before it is strained and set in dark bottles.

Ointments are also made from herbs combined with either oil or fat. The ointment is then heated quickly over boiling water before it is strained and set.

What are the benefits of herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine can be very useful for treating many different illnesses from minor scrapes and burns to serious diseases. Herbal medicines are mostly used for persistent illnesses such as migraines, arthritis, depression and PMS.

Herbal remedies are easy to take, and many herbs can be grown at home, so they are often more convenient for minor conditions. It is important to note that herbal remedies cannot replace conventional treatments in many cases, and that not all herbs are safe for human ingestion.

What are some commonly used herbs?

  • Echinacea - often used in tinctures or powders to reduce symptoms of the common cold and flu. It is also used for infections, particularly those of the kidney.
  • Garlic - used to reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as for treating infections. It can be taken fresh, as a powder, as oil or as a juice.
  • Ginger - commonly used to reduce nausea, to reduce symptoms of colds and chills through sweating and to boost circulation. It can be taken fresh, dried, or as oil.
  • Gingko - most commonly used to improve memory. Gingko improves circulation, particularly to the brain, though it is also used to regulate irregular heartbeats and to reduce symptoms of dementia. It is usually taken as a tincture or an infusion.
  • Ginseng - used to boost the immune system and decrease fatigue. It is also used for lungs conditions such as coughs, and to reduce blood pressure. The root is taken as a powder, tincture, or decoction.
  • St. John's Wort - used as an anti-depressant, for anxiety, irritability and exhaustion. It can also be used topically for burns and inflammations. St. John’s Wort is usually taken as an infusion, tincture or cream.
  • Lavender - popular as aromatic oil, and can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments from exhaustion to headaches, and indigestion to depression. It is commonly taken as an infusion, tincture, mouthwash, cream, lotion, massage oil, chest rub, hair rinse or oil.
  • Chamomile - a popular herb used for indigestion, stress relief, anxiety, and insomnia. It is also used for asthma and bronchitis. It can be taken as an infusion, tincture, ointment, inhalation or mouthwash.

Can I use herbs on my own?

Many people use herbs as daily supplements, or to treat specific ailments. While it usually safe and effective to do so, it is important to educate yourself on the correct way to use each herb, as some are not safe to ingest.

If you do decide to take an herbal supplement, it is important to let your health care provider know, as many herbs interact with other forms of medicine.


Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies by Anne Woodham and Dr. David Peters; pg 135.

Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine. Time, Inc.

Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies by Anne Woodham and Dr. David Peters.

Alternative Healing: The Complete A-Z Guide to more than 150 AlternativeTherapies by Mark Kastner, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., and Hugh Burroughs. Henry Holt and Company: 1996.

Natural Health Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs by Penelope Ody, MNIMH. Dorling Kindersley, New York: 2000.

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