Benefits of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine can often work well side by side with conventional treatments providing safe, well tolerated remedies especially in chronic illnesses.  Indeed the renaissance of herbal medicine in Western countries is partly because no effective conventional treatment as yet exists for many chronic illnesses, such as irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, eczema and asthma.  Concern over side effects of modern medicines is also and additional reason for people to look for gentler forms of treatment.

Despite great advances and advantages of conventional or allopathic medicine, herbal medicine still has a great deal to offer.  People forget that upto the last 60 years or so we relied almost entirely on plants to treat all kinds of illnesses from coughs and colds to dangerous life threatening conditions such as malaria and tuberculosis.  The resurgence of herbal medicine today is because the efficacy of antibiotics, which once had near-universal effectiveness against infection, is on the wane.  Over the years infectious organisms have become resistant to synthesized drugs.  The herb Chinese Wormwood (Artemesia annua) and its active constituent artemisin are now being used to treat malaria in areas of the world where the disease has become resistant to conventional treatment.


So what is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal Medicine or Herbalism, Phytotherapy or Botanical Medicine, is the use of herbs for their therapeutic or medicinal value. As part of their response to their environment plants produce an array of chemicals called secondary metabolites that help the plant survive. These chemicals might be used by the plant to attract/repel insects, kill micro-organisms, induce growth, store energy, store waste products or for many other uses we can’t even begin to understand. These secondary metabolites are responsible for the medicinal effects of the plants. Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness. Science sees many herbal treatments as unsound due to the lack of experimental evidence to support traditional or historical use, this has always been and probably always will be a bone of contention for herbal medicine. There are many issues that are involved here such as herb quality and variability, use of herbal extracts, placebo effects, lack of desire to test a product that can’t be patented, influence of the pharmaceutical industry on medical training. Sadly herbal medicine is a political hot potato, to accept there will never be agreement is probably the best stance. Many modern drugs have a plant history. As chemistry advanced and plant extracts were analysed then it became easier to make “similar” products to those isolated from plants. Aspirin is an example of this, being basically a laboratory created variant of a salt isolated from Meadowsweet and later Willow bark. Chemical production of medicines has a couple of financial implications, firstly it means you can secure your compound from being copied by a patent and secondly it’s cheaper to make than having to grow the plants to put through a costly extraction process. The advent of patent medicines and magic bullet medicines like penicillin (Isolated from a mould!) may have contributed to the down turn of Herbal Medicine in the last century. The reality is, however, that herbal medicine has a long and respected history and is still used by 80% of the worlds population.