Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness. From a "scientific" perspective, many herbal treatments are considered experimental. The reality is, however, that herbal medicine has a long and respected history. Many familiar medications of the twentieth century were developed from ancient healing traditions that treated health problems with specific plants. Today, science has isolated the medicinal properties of a large number of botanicals, and their healing components have been extracted and analyzed. Many plant components are now synthesized in large laboratories for use in pharmaceutical preparations. For example, vincristine (an antitumor drug), digitalis (a heart regulator), and ephedrine (a bronchodilator used to decrease respiratory congestion) were all originally discovered through research on plants.
The History of Herbal Medicine
The history of herbology is inextricably intertwined with that of modern medicine. Many drugs listed as conventional medications were originally derived from plants. Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin, was originally derived from white willow bark and the meadowsweet plant. Cinchona bark is the source of malaria-fighting quinine. Vincristine, used to treat certain types of cancer, comes from periwinkle. The opium poppy yields morphine, codeine, and paregoric, a treatment for diarrhea Laudanum, a tincture of the opium poppy, was the favored tranquilizer in Victorian times. Even today, morphine-the most important alkaloid of the opium poppy-remains the standard against which new synthetic pain relieves are measured.
Prior to the discovery and subsequent synthesis of antibiotics, 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 boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of disease-fighting white blood cells.
The use of plants as medicine is older than recorded history. As mute witness to this fact, marshmallow root, hyacinth, and yarrow have been found carefully tucked around the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq. These three medicinal herbs continue to be used today. Marshmallow root is a demulcent herb, soothing to inflamed or irritated mucous membranes, such as a sore throat or irritated digestive tract. Hyacinth is a diuretic that encourages tissues to give up excess water. Yarrow is a time-honored cold and fever remedy that may once have been used much as aspirin is today.
In 2735 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nung wrote an authoritative treatise on herbs that is still in use today. Shen Nung 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 B.C.) 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 anesthetizing the lining of the stomach.
The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. There are 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 B.C., 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 A.D. treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.
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 pharmacopeia 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 neighborhood doctor. The herbal he created was meant for the layperson.
The first U.S. Pharmacopeia was published in 1820. 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 in 1906. 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 synthesize 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.
HERBAL MEDICINE TODAY
Today, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, with its reliance on herbal compounds, has been all but forgotten. Most modern physicians rely on the Physician's Desk Reference, an extensive listing of chemically manufactured drugs. It is important to note that each entry in this enormous volume, 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 synthesize 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 synthesized 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. The suggestions for herbal treatments in this book are not intended to substitute for consultation with a qualified health care practitioner, but rather to support and assist you in understanding and working with your physician's advice.
There are over 750,000 plants on earth. Relatively speaking, only a very few of the healing herbs have been studied scientifically. And because modern pharmacology looks for one active ingredient and seeks to isolate it to the exclusion of all the others, 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.
The efficacy of many medicinal plants has been validated by scientists abroad, from Europe to the Orient. Thanks to modern technology, science can now identify some of the specific properties and interactions of botanical constituents. With this scientific documentation, we now know why certain herbs are effective against certain conditions. However, almost all of the current research validating herbal medicine has been done in Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Russia. And for the most part, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for licensing all new drugs (or any substances for which medicinal properties are claimed) for use in the United States, does not recognize or accept findings from across the sea. Doctors and government agencies want to see American scientific studies before recognizing the effectiveness of a plant as medicine. Yet even though substantial research is being done in other countries, drug companies and laboratories in the United States so far have not chosen to put much money or resources into botanical research. The result is that herbal medicine does not have the same place of importance or level of acceptance in this country as it does in other countries.
WORKING WITH AN HERBALIST
As of this writing, there is no national licensing or certification for herbalists in the United States. If you wish to locate a qualified herbalist, the best place to start is probably in your local herb shop or health food store. They may be able to refer you to a knowledgeable herbalist who can advise you. If you are unable to locate an herbalist this way, you may wish to contact the Herb Research Foundation, located at 1007 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302 (www.herbs.org) for suggestions.
An herbalist may assess your child's health needs in a variety of ways. Along with taking your child's history, methods of observation used by herbalists include pulse and tongue diagnosis, abdominal diagnosis, and iridology, which involves the correlation of minute markings on the iris with specific parts of the body.
After making an evaluation of your child, an herbalist can be expected to suggest individual herbs or herbal combinations known to be beneficial for your child's particular condition. An herbalist will often recommend herbs or herbal combinations to both strengthen the underlying system or organ and to relieve symptoms. Ask your herbalist when the preparation can be expected to effect an improvement in your child's condition. When you administer an herbal prescription, observe how the preparation makes your child feel. Promptly report improvement, lack of improvement, or any side effects to your herbalist. If the specified amount of time passes without any change in your child's symptoms, it is important to report this, too. A change in prescription may be indicated.
TREATING YOUR CHILD WITH HERBS
The power and potency of the healing herbs are very real. Every herbal treatment suggested in this book has specific healing properties, carefully balanced to create a particular action within your child's body.
Natural medicines are not like manufactured drugs. Herbal preparations work gently, so they take time to act internally. When you give your child an herbal preparation, begin with a small amount. Watch closely for signs that symptoms are easing. Observe how the preparation makes your child feel. Using herbal treatment requires observation, coupled with good judgment.
Natural herbal preparations are generally well tolerated by children. Most herbs are nontoxic, with few, if any, harmful side effects. However, it is important to know the action and possible side effects of an herb before you give it. Although it is very unusual, some children may show signs of sensitivity to a particular herb. Reactions can include a headache, an upset stomach, or a rash. If your child has a reaction, discontinue use of the herb.
If your child is responding favorably to the herb, but the reaction is too intense, either decrease the dosage or discontinue use of the herb. For example, say your child is constipated and you administer a laxative herb. If your child begins having diarrhea, you have obviously achieved relief of constipation. It's the right idea, but the reaction is too intense. Use your judgment and discontinue the herb. Likewise, if you are giving an herb with expectorant properties and your child begins coughing up large quantities of mucus, you should consider decreasing the dose so expectoration is manageable.
About The Author
JANET ZAND, O.M.D., L.Ac.
is a nationally respected author, lecturer, practitioner and herbal products formulator whose work has helped thousands of people achieve better health....more