The Beginning

Our knowledge of Herbs began with experimentation by the early hunters and gatherers. Throughout the ages, this knowledge has been expanded upon and preserved by the holistic medical systems of China and India, Folk medicines, Aboriginal peoples throughout the world, and even by Monks, Druids and Witches. These groups are the original scientists of herbal knowledge.

Herbs: Present Definition (Western World)

The short dictionary-type definition:
1) A herb is a plant without a woody stem.
2) A herb is a plant used for its medicinal properties.

Another description of Herbs can be found in the Encyclopædia Britannica (1982) under the heading 'Spices, Herbs, and Flavourings'. However, for such a massive encyclopedia, only a few sentences actually describe herbs. The small amount of information presented also leaves the impression that herbs are a thing of the past, with modern use limited to "primitive cultures" and some "present-day herbalists". For example, under the sub-heading 'Uses, Ancient and Modern', information about "ancient herbals" is included while information on existing modern herbals is excluded. The encylopedia then states at the end of this section that "In medicine the spices and herbs have not entirely lost their reputation..." and adds that the curative virtues of herbs are still respected in places like India and other Asian countried.

The Encylopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition CD-ROM (2003) does not provide much more information about herbs. While there is some added content on alkaloids, the overall message about herbs was not too different: Medical uses of herbs happened in "very early times"; herbs are called "ancient herbals"; priests "employed" herbs at one time; and herbal-based drugs still used in the pharmaceutical industry are called "crude". Further herbal information is listed under the heading 'Primitive medicine and folklore'.

The Bantam Medical Dictionary (2004) lists among its 11,000+ entries "all drugs in clinical use"; however, we could not find a single herbal entry. But when we re-checked the dictionary specifically looking for pharmaceuticals based on herbs, suddenly the outdated herbs reappeared. For example, under 'vinca alkaloid' we found the following entry: "one of a group of antimitotic drugs [...] derived from the Periwinkle (Vinca rosea). Vinca alkaloids are usually administered intravenously and are used especially to treat leukemias and lymphomas [...]".

Herbs: Present Popularity and Modern Science

A featured article in the German magazine "Fernsehwoche" (37/2004) has stated that the ancient knowledge collected by monasteries is now again being sought out, "Gott sei Dank!" (Thank God!). From this article we also learn that Europeans spend roughly 4 billion (Milliarden) Euro every year on remedies based on herbs.

In the same article, Dr. Johannes Gottfried Mayer (a medical historian from Wuerzburg) explains that over the past 20 years thousands of herbs have been researched for their medical properties. The data generated from this research can be applied for a whole range of afflictions, including gout and heart problems.

Selected herbs are also beginning to appear in the newest medical dictionaries. For example, in Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary (2006) we found this entry for Saint John's Wort: "[...] the dried aerial parts of a Saint-John's-Wort (Hypericum perforatum) that are held to relieve depression and are used in herbal remedies and dietary supplements". Additional herbal entries were also found for Echinacea ("held to stimulate the immune system"), Ginger ("to relieve nausea"), Horehound ("used as a tonic and anthelmintic..."), Milk Thistle ("the source of silymarin"; Silymarin: "held to protect the liver..."), Thyme Oil ("used chiefy as an antiseptic in pharmaceutical and dental preparations"), Valerian ("to relieve insomnia and anxiety"), and Yohimbe ("bark yields yohimbine"; Yohimbine: "...aphrodisiac and to treat impotence").

Science has identified many constituents in plants which are thought to produce the effects as reported in Folk Medicine. Science has also added a plant classification system. Classification of plants into groups can be very useful; for example, an Astringent can always be used for Bleedings and Membrane conditions.

Science has also attempted to synthesize phytochemicals extracted from plants, which can then be patented and marketed. However, it appears that these isolated chemicals do not produce the same healing effect as the original plant. Apparently, the other components of the whole plant (important enzymes, vitamins, minerals, other phytochemicals, etc) are needed to assist in the use and metabolism of the isolated phytochemical. One example comes to us from the Creosot bush. A chemical was isolated from this plant and marketed for the treatment of Cancer; the derived chemical, however, failed to live up to expectations.

Very interesting in this regard is that some American Aboriginals have said that our artificial Vitamin C is not quite the same as Vitamin C in its natural form. The Cherokee Medicine Man Rolling Thunder stated in 1971 that Vitamins include life-force which cannot be reproduced artificially (Reference: Heinz J. Stammel. Die Apotheke Manitous: Das medizinische Wissen der Indianer und ihre Heilpflanzen. 1986: 49). Later, scientific tests using gas-chromatography did indeed show differences in the electrical signature between natural and artificial Vitamin C. This also teaches us not to disregard the intuitive knowledge and insight of Aboriginal peoples.

Final Note

Science is continually publishing new discoveries, but not always is theoretical knowledge any guarantee. Experience is worth so much more than theoretical study by itself. Traditional herbal knowledge may offer us many benefits; Herbs are also generally safe. Exceptions are usually well-known and are best avoided. Also be aware that allergies and negative interactions with other medications are possible.

Next Page: German Commission E Monographs validate herbs

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