Herbal medicine, the use of herbs for their healing value, dates back to antiquity. It is man’s oldest form of healthcare. Consider the example of a 3,000 year-old mummy discovered in the Italian Alps. Scientists concluded that he had been suffering from an infestation of parasitic whipworms and was accordingly treated with birch fungus, a laxative and antibacterial found in lumps on his body.
Manuscripts from ancient cultures across the continents describe herbal remedies for hundreds of diseases. The scriptural book of Ezekiel from the sixth century B.C. testified “…and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine.” The Chinese emperor Shen Nong and the Babylonian King Hammurabi wrote about various herbs and their medicinal purposes. Hieroglyphs reveal that Egyptian physicians used plants for healing. For millennia, the Indians have looked to Ayurvedic medicine, the Chinese to Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Greeks to the system of “humors.” Illness is considered a result of an imbalance of these humors, which are innate in each person and a reflection of the four elements (air, earth, water and fire). Ayurveda theorizes that there are three doshas (body types), which are also inherent and a reflection of the natural world. Traditional Chinese Medicine operates on similar beliefs.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, herbal knowledge was passed down through the generations. In the 17th century, herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote “The English Physician,” a comprehensive and highly esteemed herbal pharmacopeia that is still in use today. In 1820, “Pharmacopeia” was first published in the U.S., containing a detailed catalog of herbal remedies and related information. It became the legal guide for medical compounds by 1906. With the advent of modern science during the 20th century, the active ingredients in plants were eventually extracted and synthesized by pharmaceutical laboratories, who then took over as the producers of drugs, leaving true herbal medicine to take a backseat.
Today, many medications have been derived from prehistoric healing practices that used specific plants to treat illness. Roughly one quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one active ingredient extracted from plant material and pharmaceutical companies continue to research exotic plants for their potential medicinal value.
Herbal medicine is still widely used in indigenous cultures as well as in naturopathic, homeopathic, Ayurvedic, traditional oriental and Native American medicine. While modern medicine has its own valuable place in society, there can be costs to swallowing a pill over a cup of herbal tea, particularly since the long-term effects of pharmaceutical drugs on subsequent generations are still a mystery. Pharmacologists capture only the active properties of a medicinal plant in a pill, thereby disregarding minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids and bioflavanoids that support the herb’s medicinal properties and provide a natural safeguard against toxicity. After all, Mother Nature is wise and she seeks to protect her children. Here at Herbal Philosophy, we believe that Mother Nature will always be mankind’s greatest chemist.