Herbal medicine introduction

Herbal medicine involves the use of plants for medicinal purposes. The term 'herb' includes leaves, stems, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, rhizomes, and bark, although in many traditions other naturally occurring substances including animal and mineral products are also used. There can be little doubt that the use of plants for healing purposes is the most ancient form of medicine known. Men and women, led by instinct, taste, and experience, used plants for healing which were not part of their normal diet; the physical evidence for herbalism goes back some 60,000 years to a Neanderthal burial site uncovered in 1960.
In China, Huang Di, the legendary Yellow Emperor is credited with writing The Yellow Emperor's classic of internal medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing), which lists 12 herbal prescriptions. The authorship of China's first materia medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) is credited to the mythical Shen Nong ('divine father'), the Yellow Emperor's predecessor.
The Egyptians are also renowned for the use of herbs, and official schools for herbalists existed in Egypt as early as 3000 BC. The Ebers Papyrus, written around 1500 BC and discovered in 1862, contains around 876 prescriptions made up of more than 500 different substances. Many of the founders of the ancient Greek schools of medicine owed their learning to the Egyptians. Hippocrates was tutored by Egyptian priest-doctors, and his writings mention over 250 medicinal plants. A vast body of Greco-Roman knowledge of herbs was preserved and enlarged upon by the Arabs. This knowledge, much of which had been lost to Europe in the Dark Ages, was reintroduced to Europe when the Crusaders returned from the Middle East. In India too, traditional medicine incorporated a large number of herbal remedies; the Indian Materia Medica, published in 1908, listed 2982 medicinal plants. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Europeans emigrated to North America. These settlers discovered that the indigenous Indian population was skilled at using the native plants as medicines and they began to incorporate them into their own remedies. Many of these new herbal remedies from the Americas were also brought back to Europe.
Despite the popularity of herbalism in the West, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, herbal medicine had begun to fall out of favour with the medical profession, which considered it to be unscientific and imprecise. In Britain, professional herbalism survived only through the establishment of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists in 1864, which is still flourishing today, and is the oldest register of practising medical herbalists in the world.
Herbal traditions There are three main methods through which herbal medicines are prescribed. The first is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM); herbal medicines are an essential part of TCM and are prescribed according to an individualised diagnosis, much as one would prescribe particular acupuncture points. Ayurvedic herbs are also prescribed according to the main underlying principles of Ayurvedic medicine on an individual basis. Western herbal prescriptions are individually formulated and usually involve a mixture of herbs. However, western herbal remedies are prepared solely from plant material, whereas traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs may also use some animal and mineral substances. Chinese herbs are usually prepared as decoctions; this means that the herbal mixtures are boiled and a liquid is prepared. Ayurvedic and Western herbs are usually administered in alcohol-water extracts or tinctures. Standard or patented traditional Chinese herbal products are available as pills, as are a number of individual Western herbs. Herbal preparations are increasingly available in health food shops and pharmacies over the counter to treat a variety of quite specific medical problems (for instance, the use of St John's Wort in depression).
Reproduced with the kind permission of BMA Publications from Professor George Lewith's book, Understanding Complementary Medicine.