Herbal medicine is nearly as old as human life itself. Plants have always been food, and special plants have been used since the beginning of humans to help the body regain internal balance, expel infections, relieve fever or upset stomach, and much more.
Herbal medicine, also termed botanical medicine or phytomedicine, uses the various parts of plants, including seeds, bark, roots, leaves, flowers, and fruit/berries for medicinal or therapeutic purposes.
An Overview of Herbal Medicine
Nearly every culture around the world across time and space have used some form of herbal medicine.
Nowadays, herbal medicine is divided into roughly 4 broad categories:
- Western, or what English speakers most commonly refer to as “herbalism;”
- Traditional Chinese Medicine, which frequently includes some stone, mineral, or even animal components in its medicinal preparations;
- Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, which also includes some mineral compounds along with the herbs; and
- Indigenous, or the multitude of disparate herbal medicine practices used by cultures and peoples across all continents.
Herbs are generally considered safe, though each individual’s reaction may be different. Additional complications include herb-drug interactions, contaminated sources, or wrong combinations. As such, before starting a therapeutic herbal remedy, be sure to consult your doctor or a trusted source.
The effectiveness of herbs is frequently called into question, and much on-going reseach continues to try to prove the effective applications and mechanism of various herbs. Nonetheless, nearly one-third of Americans use herbs, as do 80% of people around the world. In addition 25% of the drugs in the US are derived from plants.
About Herbal Preparations
There are a number of ways to prepare herbs for consumption or application.
- Culinary – Plants and herbs are first and foremost used in cooking – Turmeric in Indian food, garlic in nearly every cuisine, or a dandelion leaf salad.
- Infusion / Tisane – Dried plant parts, typically the softer more delicate ones (leaves and flowers) are steeped in hot water to create an infusion (or popularly, though mistakenly, called an herbal tea)
- Decoction – The (typically) hardier plant parts are simmered for many hours to fully extract their compounds. This method is popular in Chinese Medicine.
- Tincture – Prepared using alcohol, 100% pure ethanol, or, less commonly, glycerin, tinctures extract the herbal compounds very efficiently, and are arguably considered the most potent form of herbal medicine.
- Wine – Herbs can be added to wine, vodka, or other clear spirits to make an herbal wine or elixir, of which a shot glass size would be considered a dose.
- Syrups – Typically prepared for coughs and sore throats, these are made with syrup, honey, or concentrated glycerin.
- Oil / Salves – The main form of topical herb preparation is done by combining herbs with oil and allowing the sun or heat to facilitate the infusion. Afterwards, the oil is strained and can be used for massage, or added to salves, lotion, or balms. Ayurveda typically uses a lot of herb-infused oils.
Why are we talking about Herbal Medicine?
Besides the resurgence in popularity in the US and other Western countries of herbal medicine in the last 20-30 years, it’s also the faith in and understanding of herbs that plays a fundamental role in the development of our tea-herbal blends.
As this is National Nutrition Month, we can’t help but mention that herbs are very dense and bio-available sources of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals including most of the B Vitamins, A, C, D, E, K, calcium, iodine, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
In the last couple of posts, we’ve examined the importance and the how-to of cleansing and strengthening the liver. And most of the (non-lifestyle) recommendations given there were for plants and herbal medicines. There are countless herbs that can support liver health and can even help the liver better dispose of byproducts of pharmaceutical meds. So, especially for a regular prescription drug user, herbal medicine can be useful.
What I personally like about herbal medicine is the ability to stair-step. For general health-promoting or minor concerns, use in cooking, drink an infusion, or rub on an oil or lotion; for more significant concerns look to decoctions and tinctures.
Herbal medicine offers a lot of advantages relative to other forms of treatment, including variety of delivery methods, it’s natural, a more holistic approach to treatment–treating the root rather than the symptom and encouraging balance in the body, fewer side effects (generally speaking), and in a more woo-woo sense, a chance to reconnect with mother earth. Another advantage is the body is so adept at using plants and herbs as food and medicine, that it can take what it needs and excrete the rest.
Leave a comment — Have you used herbal medicine before? Which is your favorite? Why?