Herbal medicine is simply the practice of using plants to treat illness. Critics of the practice will often point to a false dichotomy between modern medicine and the practice of traditional herbal medicine, but, in fact, the concepts are inextricably linked. For instance, most modern pharmaceuticals are derived from (or synthesized to resemble) herbal medicine.
Furthermore, the link between herbal medicine and powerful narcotics has also served to dim public perspectives on “natural” medical practices. Some examples are cannabis, poppy plants (opiates), and the coca leaf (cocaine).
In addition, many adherents to herbal medicine make the dangerous (and possibly fatal) mistake of confusing “natural” with “safe.” There are a number of plant and fungal supplements which can be lethal, even in small doses; or plants and herbs which can interact with other foods and drugs to lead to dangerous toxicity.
Why do people use herbal medicine?
People generally use herbal medicine in lieu of modern pharmaceuticals for reasons of safety or cost. In most poor, developing countries, herbal medicine is usually a cheaper alternative to modern pharmaceuticals which are either too expensive or unavailable. Interestingly, in wealthier countries, herbal remedies can actually become quite expensive, but a growing number of patients consider herbal medicine safer than pills created in a lab. Adherents of herbal medicine often point to the long history of plant-based medical care, which was practiced by all pre-modern societies.
Supporters of plant-based medicine claim that ingesting the entire plant, rather than just the essence or active ingredient may in some cases be less toxic, or may have unforeseen benefits to the patient that would be eliminated when a drug is taken in pill form. A good example of this is the coca leaf, which is commonly used in South America as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant. However, when processed it becomes cocaine. This was hailed as a “wonder drug” in the early 20th century, but it was quickly discovered that it was a dangerously addictive and powerful narcotic.
Herbal substitutes for modern pharmaceuticals
Many of the most widely prescribed drugs in the world have precursors or links in herbal medicine. Below are a few examples:
Aspirin is perhaps the most commonly used painkiller in the world, and is highly regarded for its anti-inflammatory properties. Developed in the late 19th century in Germany, today 100 billion pills of aspirin are sold around the world annually. The active ingredient in aspirin is salicylic acid, which comes from the bark of a willow tree (as well as other dietary sources). Willow tree bark has been used as a traditional anti-inflammatory medicine for centuries.
Digitalin drugs, such as Digitoxin and Digoxin have been very successful in treating cardiac issues.
These powerful pharmaceuticals are all derived from the foxglove plant (Latin name digitalis), which was traditionally used by herbalists to treat heart conditions. However, in the case of digitalis, it is almost universally acknowledged that the pharmaceutical version is superior, as it is impossible to determine the toxicity of the dose in plant form.
Anti-malarial drug quinine is derived from the cinchona tree. Its medicinal properties were discovered by the indigenous populations of South America. Famously used as an ingredient in tonic water, it was purported to be one reason for British officers regularly enjoying a gin and tonic cocktail. Until World War II, quinine was the anti-malarial drug of choice worldwide, but the proliferation of medicine with fewer side effects has led to a reduction in the use of pharmaceutical quinine.
What do I need to know about herbal medicine?
Be sure to take any claims about herbal medicine with some degree of skepticism; plant-based pharmaceuticals are not inherently safer than those produced in a lab. However, there are a number of plant compounds which have historically shown impressive healing powers. It is advisable to research each herbal remedy individually, to ensure that it is safe and does not have any dangerous interactions with your current drug regimen.