Two-thirds of the people on earth use botanical medicine as their conventional medicine. Botanical medicine, also known as phytotherapy, is not “alternative,” so to speak. Rather, it surrounds us and it is all we have, whether we take it straight from the vine or alter it in a lab. Before the turn of the century, and even into the twentieth century, the use of plant substances was a significant part of conventional physicians’ treatments. An increasing number of drugs have isolated from plants and are now synthesized, but many are still derived directly from green plants. The Western medical approach, also known as allopathic medicine, is not actually “traditional” in the literal definition of the word, since “traditional” refers to methods far older and more global than modern Western science. In this way, we see that herbal and botanical medicine are truly traditional medicines.
In the emerging model of Biological Systems Medicine, the emphasis is now on integrated medicine: using the most appropriate method for each individual, each time he or she needs help. For example, in the case of a life-threatening emergency, gentle herbal teas taken over several weeks are not the most appropriate medicine. Herbal treatment can be appropriate after the situation is stable. Good medicine means knowing what is indicated for the patient’s best care. Everyone from natural therapists to surgeons can make peace with the concept of integrated or appropriate medicine.
What are the benefits of botanical medicine? Generally, herbal preparations are less toxic than their synthetic counterparts and have fewer side effects. Herbs correct the underlying cause of poor health. In contrast, synthetic drugs are often designed to alleviate the symptom or effect without addressing the underlying issue.
What does an herb actually do in the body? From ancient times, herbalists have described the therapeutic properties of herbs in ways that explain their action to the best of our understanding. Modern terms are also used today, though the most scientific words are no more accurate that some ancient descriptive words.
- Tonics are herbs that nourish specific cells, tissues, and organs, and are often used for long periods of time. They are gentle, slow, stimulants.
- Specifics are herbs that have a specific job to do for a limited time. They generally work by fine-tuning a biochemical process. One of the best-known examples is Echinacea, which stimulates immune cell function and heightens resistance to infections.
How are herbs taken? Traditionally used parts of the plant are not broken down by practicing herbalists in a lab for one “active constituent” to create a drug-like standardized effect. Instead, the entire herb is used. The complex biochemistry of a whole root, for example, may be extracted by water in a cup of tea, by alcohol and water in a tincture, or by an oil in an herbal salve. Different herbs with their many active constituents are known to extract best in particular preparations.
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Cook, Larry. The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Living. Los Angeles: Eco Vision Communications, 2006.
Murray, N.D., Michael T. The Healing Power of Herbs. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 1995.