The earliest written records of nearly all civilisations mention the use of herbs for healing. Throughout human history there has been a close relationship between people and plants. Botany and medicine have always been closely associated.
The great herbal of China, which dates around 3000 BC, discusses herbal treatments in detail. Another early herbal is the Ebers Papyrus of 1500 BC which lists over 800 botanical prescriptions used in various disorders.
Early Greek literature also has many references to the medical use of plants. Hippocrates (460-355 BC) was the first to list the plants by their use.
Several lists of attempt at publication of material medica (medical material), however, was not until the early 1500s AD by Paracelsus. The first official pharmacopoeia, mostly of botanical origin, appeared in 1564. The earliest one in English was the first United States pharmacopoeia, published in 1820. Today, over 50 percent of all new prescriptions written in the United States contain at least one ingredient either produced directly from plants, or discovered from plant sources and later synthesised.
Modern medicine draws its origins from early herbal therapies. Until the advent of synthetic medicine within the past 50 to 100 years, all medicine doctors prescribed herbs routinely. Later research into the chemistry of plant products isolated what was considered the active principle from plants. The active principles were described as drugs whose names often still reflect their botanical origins. A commonly known example of this is Digitalis purpurea (Foglove).
This herb had been used as a heart stimulant in folk medicine for centuries prior to the isolation of its active principle, digitoxin. Another example is the isolation in 1947 of reserpine from Ralwolfia serpentine (Indian snake root), a plant native to India and clearly described for its pharmacological uses in Vedas, India’s earliest written records dating from 1500 BC.
Within the decade 1940 to 1950, hundreds of new wonder drugs were discovered, nearly all of botanical origin. The amazing thing about the discovery of these potent and clearly therapeutic drugs was not their existence, since written history was literally pregnant with specific examples testifying to the medicinal use of plants, but rather how long modern researchers took to investigate them. This nearsighted attitude has been expressed by De Ropp in Drugs and the Mind.
Unfortunately, this separation of herbs from their ‘drug actions’ was the fall from grace of the medical profession. Not only was the active principle found to be much more potent than the herb from which it was obtained, it also was usually found to be much more dangerous, with more profound toxic effects.
These toxic effects were termed ‘side effects’, but in reality were merely the normal action to the active principle in the body acting in ways other than desired by the physician. With the development of drugs came an increase in diseases caused by medication. It is now estimated that at least one-third of all diseases today are iatrogenic or the result of medication given to treat disease.
The use of botanical medicine, or preparations derived from the entire complex of the botanical plant part used, is usually safer but slower in action than orthodox drug therapy. By utilising not only the so-called ‘active principle’ but also the ‘associated factors’ which naturally occur in the plant, the practitioner of botanical medicine has been spared most of the problem of drug-related diseases. The beneficial use of botanical preparation in fact does not rest solely with the active principle, of which there may be several for a single herb, but usually in the total interaction of all its constituents.
It is, however, a common misconception that botanical medications are completely safe and nontoxic. For the most part this is true if herbs are used in their proper doses. However, any medicine can cause toxic reactions when used improperly. The use of herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary, dill, ginger, and garlic in cooking and seasoning is an example of how widespread the safe use of herbs really is in daily life.
Herbal teas are now abound in most food stores and are used as pleasant-tasting drinks or to obtain mild botanical effects such as the calmative effects of chamomile, or the digestive benefits of peppermint. Even commonly used herbal teas, however, should really be reserved for medical use and not taken routinely.
Such commonly used herbs as comfrey, golden seal, or lobelia can cause toxic reactions. Knowledge of botanical toxicology, therefore, is essential before one tries to treat disease with herbs. Even with this warning in mind it can be fairly said that botanical medicine is usually safer and more therapeutic than the use of drugs when prescribed and monitored properly.
Herbs may be used in many ways to treat disease. If a herb is used merely to suppress symptoms without regard for cause or cure, it is little better than a nontoxic drug. If used properly, herbs act as aids in stimulating or directing the body’s own healing forces, thus promoting health from within.
Actions of Botanical preparations
Botanical preparations, although often referred to as herbs, may be derived from any member of the plant kingdom, including leaf plants, weeds, trees, ferns, or lichens. The whole plant or a single part of the plant, such as its root, rhizome, bulb, stem, bark, flower, styles, stigma, fruit, seed, or resin may be used. Each part has a known action or actions, each herb stimulates the body to act in one or more directions.
This herbal action elicits an alteration for the better in the course of an illness. Alterations are often described as blood purifiers and are used to treat conditions arising from or causing toxicity. If given a proper dose over a prolonged period of time, these herbs improve the condition of the blood, accelerate elimination, improve digestion, and increase the appetite. Knowledge about natural medicine is important.
About the writer: Trust Marandure is a naturopathy practitioner based in Bulawayo. He can be contacted on Cell: 0772 482 382 or email: @ tgmarandure @yahoo.com