Humans have used herbs as a remedy since the beginning of time. Despite the advancements in modern medicine, 70% of the developing world still relies on alternative herbal treatments to treat anything from simple skin issues like wounds and rashes to infertility, depression, epilepsy and many other conditions.
What is herbalism?
Herbalism or herbal medicine is the practice of using plants and their extracts to treat various illnesses and disorders. A herbalist aims to cure the underlying cause instead of symptoms alone. It may be used as a symptomatic relief in some instances – aloe vera has been widely used to heal wounds. Herbal healing is natural, less invasive than conventional medicine and offers long-lasting effects.
Difference between herbal and modern medicine?
Around 70% of the medicines used today are derived from plant chemicals. All plants produce chemical compounds as a part of their metabolic activities. These compounds can be divided into two groups: primary metabolites and secondary metabolites. Primary metabolites like sugars and fats can be found in all plants, and secondary metabolites are found in a smaller number of plants. These secondary metabolites contain chemicals like aspirin or morphine that have healing effects on the human body.
Willow bark, for example, has been used in traditional medicine for more than 3500 years. The active agent within willow bark – salicin – led to the discovery of aspirin. In a sense, herbal medicine doesn’t differ so much from conventional medicine in the way it works in a body, which means they could be equally effective, and have potential to cause harmful side effects if used incorrectly. The main difference between herbal and conventional medicines is that herbal medicines contain a combination of chemicals from one or more herbs, aiming to treat the whole body, opposed to a single active substance found in pharmaceuticals.
What forms can it take?
Herbal supplements and remedies come in different ways and have various applications.
Some of the most common forms include:
- Infusions and decoction – parts of the plant soaked in water until the water absorbs the oils and flavours
- Creams, lotions and gels
- Ointments – oil-based formulas for external use
- Syrups – a concentration of sugar and water, with a thick and sticky texture
- Essential oils – concentrated plant extracts
Herbs can be also taken as powders, mouthwash, or capsules. Steam inhalation with herbs such as thyme or rosemary helps clear the nasal passages, throat and lungs. Bathing with infusions is another age-old therapy used to treat diseases and reduce stress.
Different approaches to herbalism
Like many other forms of traditional medicine, herbalist practices and philosophies are influenced by the environment and geography where they first evolved.
Two commonly used approaches are Chinese Herbalism as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Herbalism. Ayurvedic herbalism, traditional Japanese Kampo and Unani medicine are other examples of traditional medicine systems that rely heavily on herbal treatments.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Following the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese Herbalism aims to restore the body’s balance by affecting yin and yang – two opposing and complementary forces that make up qi. Qi is a vital force that flows through the body, and any imbalance to qi can result in illness, pain and suffering. The energy, or qi, is said to be unable to flow freely mostly due to stress, poor nutrition, unhealthy habits, trauma and injuries.
By assessing the state of a patient’s qi, the herbalist will give a diagnosis expressed in TCM terms – many of which can correlate to western terms and diseases. Chinese Herbal Medicine uses specific formulas or a combination of herbs that match the diagnosis. During the length of therapy, as the patient’s condition changes, formulas are modified according to the patient’s needs.
The origins of western herbalism can be traced back to the indigenous practices of Greco-Roman, European, Arabic and American cultures. Herbal medical practices were changing as global transport and communication kept expanding. North American herbs like Echinacea were brought to Europe, and at the same time, Eastern herbs like ginseng became a common ingredient in Western herbal remedies.
Just like Chinese Herbalism, Western herbalism is person-centred, treating the body as a whole instead of symptoms alone. Two patients may have similar symptoms and the cure prescribed for them could differ completely, based on the factors that may have caused those symptoms in the first place.
Western herbalists may be trained with the same clinical examination skills as general practitioners and therefore have an approach that is closer to more conventional medical practices. The term “western” should not be confused, however, with medical or clinical – western herbalists may still rely on traditional ways of treating patients.
Benefits of herbalism
There is a herb for almost any condition, and some common herbal uses are listed below:
Issues like acne, psoriasis, alopecia, dermatitis, herpes, different infections, wounds and burns can be effectively treated with herbs.
Some herbal treatments can be prepared at home. One such example is the oatmeal bath – according to this study oats contain soothing properties for itchy skin as a result of eczema. You should always consult your doctor before trying any herbal preparations on your own.
Herbal medicines have the ability to increase the body’s resistance to stress resulting from a wide array of factors. It consequently saves energy and helps combat fatigue. This article showcases the effectiveness of herbs like ginseng and ashwagandha to treat chronic fatigue disorder. Chronic fatigue disorder is a common lifestyle disease that includes a wide spectrum of symptoms and causes and may be accompanied by other diseases such as depression, cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Cough is one of the most common respiratory issues, with a wide range of herbal treatments available to treat it. There is strong evidence of using ivy, primrose or thyme/based preparations to successfully alleviate cough symptoms.
This review from 2018 claims the peppermint oil is demonstrated to help with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders. Turmeric and ginger are commonly used to help with nausea and improve digestion.
Other illnesses and disorders that can be treated with herbal medicine:
- Urinary conditions
- Increased blood flow
- Allergy symptoms
- Menopause symptoms
- Menstrual cramps
Who is it suitable for and what does a typical session look like?
Natural remedies should not be consumed without precaution. It is essential to talk to your doctor before taking on any treatment if you fall into any of the following groups: women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, young people, elderly, people taking other forms of medicine, people with liver or kidney conditions.
The first session will likely last longer and includes a consultation. The practitioner will need the following information about you:
- Your health history
- Supplements and medication you’re taking
- Lifestyle habits
- Family’s medical history
The initial assessment helps them understand what could be an underlying issue that they need to treat.
There may be a physical examination included, like taking your blood pressure, feeling the abdomen and looking at the pupils. The practitioner may suggest dietary and lifestyle changes to support the healing. The number of follow-up check-ups will depend on the issue that is being treated.
How to find a herbalist?
Considering all the different approaches to herbalism, there aren’t one common path herbalists take to gain expertise and there are no specific entry requirements. National Institute of Medical Herbalists provides a list of accredited degrees in the area of Medical Herbalism and a list of professional herbalism practitioners.
From spring 2021 you can find herbalists in your area by visiting our website. Search and book your next treatment directly through our online marketplace.