History of Herbal Medicine


Herbal medicine has been around for a long time. In China and Egypt written texts dating back 3,000 years tell of the use of plants for medicine. In Iraq, flower pollen from eight species of medicinal flowering plant have been found in the 60,000 year old grave of a Neanderthal man, the family and friends of the dead man had surrounded his body with clusters of flowers and branches at his summer-time funeral. Of these eight species, seven are still used today for medicine in dozens of different ways by local people. It’s not difficult to imagine how herbal medicine might have evolved as early man tasted his environment and noticed bodily effects like vomiting, rapid bowel emptying, poisoning, painkilling, sedating, stimulating and perception altering. The more dramatic the reaction the more memorable the plant. As time went on, each tribe added the medicinal power of herbs in their area to its knowledge base. They methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the 20th century much of the pharmacopoeia of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples.
In 2735 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong wrote an authoritative treatise on herbs that is still in use today. Shen Nong recommended the use of Ma Huang (known as ephedra in the Western world), for example, against respiratory distress. Ephedrine, extracted from ephedra, is widely used as a decongestant. You'll find it in its synthetic form, pseudoephedrine, in many allergy, sinus, and cold-relief medications produced by large pharmaceutical companies. The records of King Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1800 BC) include instructions for using medicinal plants. Hammurabi prescribed the use of mint for digestive disorders. Modern research has confirmed that peppermint does indeed relieve nausea and vomiting by mildly anaesthetising the lining of the stomach. The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. There are also texts surviving from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India that describe and illustrate the use of many medicinal plant products, including castor oil, linseed oil, and white poppies. In the scriptural book of Ezekiel, which dates from the sixth century BC, we find this admonition regarding plant life: "and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine." Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians of the first and second centuries AD treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.
In 16th Century England, the Royal College of Physicians increasingly monopolised healing by various Acts, so that eventually only the rich could afford health-care. In 1543, Henry VIII (himself a herbalist!) introduced his own Act, which made it lawful for anyone having "knowledge and experience" to practise as a Herbalist. This meant that the "wise woman" of the village could once again bring her healing skills to the aid of the poor. Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines readily available, and for centuries, no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended and extensively used herb garden. For the most part, herbal-healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mother taught daughter; the village herbalist taught a promising apprentice. By the seventeenth century, the knowledge of herbal medicine was widely disseminated throughout Europe. In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper wrote A Physical Directory, and a few years later produced The English Physician. This respected herbal pharmacopoeia was one of the first manuals that the layperson could use for health care, and it is still widely referred to and quoted today. Culpeper had studied at Cambridge University and was meant to become a great doctor, in the academic sense of the word. Instead, he chose to apprentice to an apothecary and eventually set up his own shop. He served the poor people of London and became known as their neighbourhood doctor. The herbal he created was meant for the layperson.
The first settlers to America soon found that the local plants were different from those at home, and quickly began using Native American remedies based on North American plants. Meanwhile in Europe physicians were treating those who could afford it using chemicals. In 1830 an unfortunately named Dr A L Coffin, a student of Samuel Thomson a famous American Herbalist, reintroduced to Europe a formalised system of Herbal Medicine, now showing strong American influences. He was later instrumental in the formation in 1864 of what became the National Institute of Medical Herbalists.
The first British Pharmacopoeia was published in 1864 (Interestingly the same year that The National Institute of Medical Herbalists was formed!). This volume included an authoritative listing of herbal drugs, with descriptions of their properties, uses, dosages, and tests of purity. It was periodically revised and became the legal standard for medical compounds. But as Western medicine evolved from an art to a science in the nineteenth century, information that had at one time been widely available became the domain of comparatively few. Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesise the active ingredients in plants, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity. It is interesting to note that in the US before antibiotics were synthesized, the herb Echinacea (which comes from the plant commonly known as Purple Coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. For centuries, herbalists prescribed Echinacea to fight infection. Today, research confirms that the herb may influence the immune system by stimulating disease-fighting white blood cells.

Herbal Medicine Today
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 4 billion people, 80% of the world population, presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous peoples’ traditional medicine and a common element in Ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional oriental and Native American Indian medicine. WHO notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74% are used in modern medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures. Major pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting extensive research on plant materials gathered from the rain forests and other places for their potential medicinal value. Most modern physicians rely on the Monthly Index of Medical Specialities, an extensive listing of chemically manufactured drugs, published monthly and provided free. It is important to note that each entry, in addition to specifying the chemical compound and actions of a particular drug, also includes an extensive list of contraindications and possible side effects.
Rather than using a whole plant, pharmacologists identify, isolate, extract, and synthesise individual components, thus capturing the active properties. This can create problems, however. In addition to active ingredients, plants contain minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids, bioflavanoids, and other substances that are important in supporting a particular herb's medicinal properties. These elements also provide an important natural safeguard. Isolated or synthesised active compounds can become toxic in relatively small doses; it usually takes a much greater amount of a whole herb, with all of its components, to reach a toxic level. Herbs are medicines, however, and they can have powerful effects. They should not tee taken lightly.
Substances derived from the plants remain the basis for a large proportion of the commercial medications used today for the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, asthma, and other problems. For example, ephedra is an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than two thousand years to treat asthma and other respiratory problems. Ephedrine, the active ingredient in ephedra, is used in the commercial pharmaceutical preparations for the relief of asthma symptoms and other respiratory problems. It helps the patient to breathe more easily. Another example of the use of an herbal preparation in modern medicine is the foxglove plant. This herb had been in use since 1775. At present, the powdered leaf of this plant is known as the cardiac stimulant digitalis to the millions of heart patients it keeps alive worldwide. The drug derived from it is called Digoxin.
There are over 250,000 species of flowering plants on earth very few of these are used in herbal medicine and have been studied scientifically. Most of the research that is done on plants continues to focus on identifying and isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of whole plants. Herbalists, however, consider that the power of a plant lies in the interaction of all its ingredients. Plants used as medicines offer synergistic interactions between ingredients both known and unknown.