Are you curious about herbal medicine? Do you wonder how it might help you achieve your health goals? Well, you have good reason to wonder, because people have been using herbal medicine for thousands of years, and they remain in widespread use today.
What is herbal medicine? It is the practice of using plants as medicine. Pharmaceuticals today are generally made from synthesized compounds and chemicals. Meanwhile, herbal medicine uses whole plants and plant parts to create medicines and treatments.
Herbal medicines in history and science
Five-thousand-year-old Sumerian clay tablets describe the preparation of medicinal plants. These are the oldest evidence of herbal medicine that we have found. The Sumerians recorded the medicinal uses of poppy, mandrake, and other plants. Later, the ancient Chinese documented the beneficial uses of such plants as ginseng, camphor, and cinnamon. The Vedas (Hindu holy texts), the bible, and other ancient religious documents also mention medicines derived from the fruits and leaves of trees, vines, and other plants.
Many people still use the herbal knowledge described in ancient texts today. Much of herbal medicine is not yet scientifically backed. However, research has provided evidence that many popular herbs may indeed serve as effective treatments for certain conditions. We must not forget that many pharmaceutical drugs are synthesized from compounds inspired by those that naturally occur in plants and herbs. In short, there is a great deal of medicinal knowledge to be gleaned from long-standing herbal traditions.
Indigenous peoples around the globe have studied and used local herbs for thousands of years. Indeed, much of our understanding and awareness of herbal treatments stems from indigenous knowledge. Sage, cohosh, and coneflower root are among the many thousands of plants originally used by Native American groups to treat a variety of conditions.
The Khoi and San peoples of South Africa are credited with discovering and implementing rooibos as an herb that can provide many health benefits. These are just a couple of examples of a strong global tradition of indigenous herbal knowledge that has provided the foundation for and shaped modern medicine.
Medicinal herbs and plants contain a wide array of beneficial compounds. Some are rich in antioxidants, a kind of molecule that fights free radicals and has powerful health benefits. Others contain polyphenols, naturally occurring compounds that have been proven to help in the fight against diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases. Such micronutrients are vital to wellbeing and can be found in generous amounts in the right herbs. Researchers believe that the benefits of many herbs are yet to be discovered.
So, how are herbs usually prepared and delivered? Medicinal herbs come in many forms. Different treatments will call for different preparations. Whole plants can be distilled into tinctures and infusions. In this process, the herb is soaked in alcohol, vinegar, or another substance that pulls the active compounds out of the plant. Once the herb’s essence has been extracted and strained to form the tincture, it can be administered orally.
Distilling an herb or using methods of cold pressing results in the creation of essential oils. There are a variety of ways to use essential oils. People use them topically, in air diffusers, and as an ingredient in soaps, creams, and other products. Essential oils are a very popular method of consuming herbal treatments.
Some herbs are best prepared as powders. They are dried and ground up, using a mortar and pestle, or an herb or coffee grinder. Many herbalists tout the benefits of drying herbs, stating that the drying process can concentrate the active components of an herb so that, in some cases, they might be more potent. Powdered herbs can be easily mixed into food or drink. Some might choose to put the powder into capsules so that the herbs can be taken as pills. After drying, herbs can also be cut and infused into teas. Dried herbs and powders are easy to store because they keep longer than fresh herbs.
Many people infuse herbs into beeswax to produce beneficial salves. Herbal concentrates, oils, and, in some cases, whole herbs, can also be added to soaps and creams for topical use. Lavender, tea tree, and peppermint are examples of herbs that are commonly used in skin care and topical products.
Eating whole, fresh herbs
Rather than processing herbs through drying, infusion, or extraction, some people prefer to consume the fruits, leaves, bark, and/or roots of medicinal plants in a whole and fresh form in order to receive fuller health benefits. Not all herbs should be consumed whole, but many can be. Some herbalists believe that eating whole plants generally increases their efficacy by providing a holistic offering of the plant’s natural chemicals and components. On the other hand, it is easier to consume larger doses of a plant’s active ingredients through extractions and distillations. So, it might be harder to get the dose you need by eating the whole herb.
The usage, dosage, and preparation of an herbal treatment should be managed with care. It can be very exciting to dive into herbal medicine, but you should always consult a trained clinical herbalist before embarking on your own journey of herbal therapies. Consuming the wrong plant or using the wrong dose or delivery method can result in negative health effects. In some cases, the irresponsible use of herbal treatments can have very serious consequences. That is why it is important to do good research and to talk with a professional before preparing any herbal medicines or undergoing any herbal treatments.
With this in mind, there are a great many resources available for learning more about herbal medicine. Many botanical and health organizations offer guides to medicinal plants. You can also go to your library or bookstore to find some of the endless tomes that have been written to collect centuries of gathered herbal knowledge.
As previously mentioned, there are plenty of knowledgeable herbalists who would be happy to help you on your holistic health journey. Be sure to check an herbalist’s qualifications before working with them. Organizations like the American Herbalists Guild provide directories for finding registered herbalists in your region.
Would you like to learn more about natural wellness? Olive Branch Wellness Center in South Elgin is here to provide you with holistic care, and we are happy to share our knowledge and resources with you. Please feel free to give us a call at 630-370-7290.