A General Overview of the History of Medicinal Herb Use
The use of herbs medicinally falls under the category of alternative medicine. Using herbs medicinally is spiritually a way to connect with the Earth. Many people would like to learn to heal themselves with natural remedies that are less harmful than modern pharmaceuticals. There are specific questions commonly asked about herbs for medicinal use.
- What is alternative medicine?
- Who were the first recorded people to use herbs medicinally?
- Why would a person choose to take herbs rather than mainstream medications?
- Why are herbs not approved by the FDA for medicinal use?
- Should people take herbs to prevent getting sick or to cure an illness?
- Where can people find herbs to use medicinally?
- What are some whays to prepare herbs for medicinal use?
- How do people know what dosage of an herb to take and the best form to take it in?
A Consumer’s Guide to Alternative Health Care by Craig Colton and Virginia McCullough, 1995, defines “alternative” in reference to health care as “…a world of health care practitioners who collectively offer alternatives to the medicinal practices to which we are most accustomed.”
Medicinal herbs have been used for thousands of years. The Sumerians, a now dead civilization, left written records of their medicinal uses of some herbs on clay tablets which date approximately 6000 years ago. When the pilgrims first came to the New World, they brought with them their medicinal herbs to cultivate in their gardens in order to make necessary medicines to maintain their health. Through time, they learned the uses of the herbs native to the New World through trial and error and from the Native Americans who had previously and would continue using the land’s medicinal herbs for hundreds of years (Guineness, 1993).
Today, approximately 40% of the pharmaceutical and over the counter drugs available originally come from herbal sources (Clayton &McCullough, 1995). The application of herbal treatments have become common and focus more on heightnening the body’s ability to heal itself, as opposed to the symptom-specific over the counter and pharmaceutical medications (Elias & Masline, 1995). Even though the usage of medicinal herbs is commonplace, it is not mainstream in the U.S. nor generally accepted by the U.S.’s scientific community. It is, however, traditional and common in many other countries and cultures (Clayton & McCullough, 1995).
Many people are turning to herbal remedies to avoid the harmful side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, when they fall victim to the failure modern medicine, or when they find the medical industry doesn’t have treatment for their illness (Guiness, 1993). In a study done by the National Center for Health Stastistics, The American Association of Poison Control Centers, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and The Consumer Products Safety Commission, death incurred from the use of pharmaceutical drugs, herbs, and vitamins statistics were compared between the years 1981-1993. The study showed that only one person died as a direct result of taking vitamin supplements, however, approximately 100,000 people died as a direct result of taking pharmaceuticals. The surevey was topped off with the results that absolutely no fatalities occured from the use of herbal supplements. The study was based on incidents where in all three products mentioned, patients followed their recommended dosages (Castleman, 1997).
Before the 1900’s, herbal remedies were used extensively in the USA. From the 1900’s to the 1960’s such use dwindled (Elias & Masline, 1995). Since the 1980’s, many medical doctors began to merge herbal treatments with mainstream American health care. In many other countries, such as Great Britain, France, India, and Germany, herbal remedies have been available at the local drugstore for many years, perscribed by pharmacists and doctors alike, and in some cases, more frequently than pharmaceuticals (Silberger, 1997).
The A to Z Guide to Healing Herbal Remedies by Jason Elias and Shelagh Ryan Masline, 1995, gives an insightful explanation about why the FDA has not approved herbs for medicinal use: “An herb, unlike a drug cannot be patented by any one company in the United States–which means that manufacturers of these remedies have little incentive to brave the costly and lenghty gauntlet of the FDA’s approval process…therefore, the FDA cannot allow the packager of herbal products to make any healing claims on the labels of their products…the FDA does not permit warning of any possible side effects of herbs.”
Generally, people are encouraged to use herbs as a supplement ot help them stay well, rather than just when they get ill. Waiting until someone is afflicted by an illness is how most modern pharmaceuticals are perscribed, as well as treating only the symptom (i.e., the headache or nausea caused by an underlying problem) rather than the root of the ailment. Many herbs can be safely taken in conjunction with perscribed medications (Elias & Masline, 1995). An herb generally works on the body in one of three ways: it can purge the body of impurities or an illness, it can build up the immune system, or it can strengthen the consitution of an organ so it will heal itself. Individual herbs can accomplish one or more of these functions, and specific herbs are used for specific ailments although there is often more than one herb which can aid in the treating of an ailment (Clayton & McCullough, 1995).
Herbs can be ordered through herbal catalogues, bought in health food stores, or grown in your garden. Today, many herbs have become available in mainstream grocery store pharmacies in pill form. Some brands of herbal throat lozenges which contain herbs are rapidly becoming more popular (Elias & Masline, 1995).
Some herbs are used externally in the form of lotions, ointments, and salves. Other herbs are recommended internally in the form of pills, tinctures, infusions, deconctions, or raw (Clayton & McCullough, 1995). An infusion, or tea, is a formula in which the medicinal portion of an herb are steeped in very hot water for two to five minutes, or until the desired strength is achieved. A decoction is similar to an infusion, however, the roots, bark, and otherwise more fibrous materials are used and boiled for a longer period of time. Metal cookware may chemically alter a decoction or tincture, so people are recommended to use cookware of other materials such as ceramic or glass (Elais & Masline, 1995).
On the labels of most herbal products there is a suggested dosage listed. If someone is purchasin a product from a health food or herbal specialty store, there is usually someone who works there who can give a dosage estimation. The most respected and intelligent way to find how much of an herb you should take is by going to see a licensed herbalist and getting a recommendation from her about what herb(s) you should be taking and the recommended dosage (Elias & Masline, 1995).
Herbs can be taken to supplement health and many can be taken along with pharmaceutical drugs without negative side effects. Herbs are safe to use as long as a certified herbalist is consulted or if a person takes it upon herself to research the herb extensively and come to an educated decision about dosage and what form of the herb is most effective (i.e., pill, tincture, or infusion). Herbs have been used medicinally for thousands of years, so the medical doctors of today should actually be calling their form of healing, “alternative medicine”. The statistics of side effects from pharmaceutical drugs is staggeringly more abundant when compared to side effects observed from the use of herbs.