Herbal Medicine – Part I – Historical and Philosophical Background

History

Herbal medicine has been around since before recorded history. Cave paintings in France, radiocarbon-dated to before 13,000 BC, show the use of plants as healing agents. Herbalism was intimately connected to religious practices, and was frequently the jealously-guarded preserve of shamans, or "witch doctors". The use of herbs as medicine pervades all cultures.

The earliest written records date back over 5000 years in Western culture to the Sumerian civilization. In the East, the Siddha, Unani and Ayurvedic systems from India arose long before the Christian era, and are still practiced today. And traditional Chinese herbology is still thriving as well.

Africa has a long history of herbal remedies, strongly influenced by its links with trading partners from both East and West. Native Americans hold to the belief that illness is caused by a disturbance in one's balance with nature, and can be cured by rituals that often include the use of herbal medicines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80% of the world's population uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Many pharaceuticals being used today by physicians were originally used as herbal remedies, including aspirin, digitalis, and quinine. In recent years, scientists have been searching all over the world for natural sources of phytochemicals that might be developed into treatments for various diseases. The WHO estimates that 25% of drugs presently in use in the US were derived from plants.

Philosophy

Despite the fact that herbal medicines have a long history of use, the fact that in most cases their effectiveness has not been scientifically proven has led to a controversy between herbalists and mainstream medicine. In Western culture, the rise of modern medical practice brought with it a decline in the use of herbal medicines. This gave rise to the notion that such remedies were nothing more than "old wives tales." In recent years, however, herbalism has come to be recognized by many as an alternative, or sometimes complementary method of treatment.

In my research for this article, I discovered that there are basically four groups, each espousing differing points of view regarding the use of herbal remedies: 1) herbalists, 2) pharaceutical manufacturers, sometimes aided by physicians, 3) vitamin and mineral supplement manufacturers , with some help from herbalists, and 4) governmental institutions.

I will try not to take sides here. There is no need for animosity between these factions. In all that I have read, there is a concern for the safety and well-being of those who would use herbal remedies. But each group has its own vested interest which slants its perspective to more or less of a degree.

To be continued …

In the next installment, I will describe the viewpoints of the four factions above. References will be given to websites which illustrate the ideas presented.