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Herbal Medicine and its place in therapy

Updated on March 12, 2013
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An experienced integrative healthcare professional & Member of the International Alliance of Holistic Therapists

In this modern world we live in today, we have access to a wide variety of healing modalities other than allopathic medicine. Herbs are an effective complementary therapy and its use in society is increasing since more and more people are turning toward a more holistic approach to medicine rather than relying on ‘orthodox’ medicine alone [1].

In “orthodox” or allopathic medicine, the scope of disease is limited to the physical level and focus is placed on removing symptoms [2]. Allopathic medicine does not address sickness in the levels of the mind and emotions or the difference in body constitutions or predispositions to certain illnesses [2]. Major importance is targeted at a man’s organs and not man himself as a whole entity [2]. Sickness is diagnosed by physical examination alone and drug treatment used in crude forms is aimed at removing only the ailments and symptoms of disease [2].

Herbal medicine or herbalism, on the other hand is based upon the natural ecological relationship between Man and plants and the wholeness of this approach and branch of medicine [1]. The philosophies behind the field of herbal medicine rely on a holistic method of healing where the ultimate aim is to “treat the whole person and not just the symptoms” [1]. It looks at the fundamentals of health as being a “positive state instead of the absence of a disease” [1]. The priority in herbal medicine is to promote health through the prevention of disease and the individual patient’s responsibility for their own health is emphasized and encouraged [1]. Treatments are individualised and catered to each person according to their needs and different constitutions and predispositions to certain diseases [1].

One example to compare the use of herbs and drugs is in the treatment of stomach ulcers [1]. As an example, in herbal medicine, herbs such as comfrey, marshmallow root, goldenseal and meadowsweet can all help heal and soothe an ulcer whilst incorporating and advocating the right diet and lifestyle to prevent the stomach ulcer from ever occurring again [1]. In this branch of therapy, patients are taught to be more attuned to the plants and their sources and origins in nature and results in a deeper transformative healing process [1]. If drug treatment were used on the other hand, problems may ensue [1]. Tagamet for example which is commonly used to treat ailments associated with the over-production of stomach acid through its effects in effecting rapid changes in some of the biochemistry that leads to ulcer formation and irritation are made through chemical processes that result in pollution and hence dead fishes in a polluted rivers, thus causing damage, pain and harm to nature instead of embracing and working in tune with it [1].

Many have turned toward medical herbalism and herbal medicine because they have been told to learn to live with their illness and that there was nothing else orthodox medicine could do for them [1]. There are also the increasing questions of safety of drug therapy considering the many well-documented side effects and adverse drug reactions and side effects attributed to allopathic or conventional pharmaceutical drug therapy [1]. There is also an increasing acknowledgement of the faults of the allopathic system in the National Health Service in Britain for example [1].

Herbal medicine works to integrate and balance our bodies’ physiological functions to strengthen vitality of our body systems [1]. Harmony and health is no longer based upon the correct diet, correct herbs but is a more complete picture of having the right thoughts, lifestyle and actions [1]. It is during these times when our bodies are balanced that all the other aspects of our health is encouraged and promoted [1].

The potent healing properties of herbs have been widely used in different therapeutic branches of healing including Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, often used alongside manual therapies such as acupuncture as well [1]. They have also been used for a long time by thr North American Indians [1]. Even modern pharmaceutical drugs and allopathic medicine is derived from herbs as a root source [1]. For instance, amphetamines are based on the alkaloid ephedrine that supply stimulants and anti-asthmatic drugs which are originally exploited from the discovery of the active ingredient ephedrine in the Chinese herb Ma Huang or ephedra sinica [1]. This proves that allopathic medicine still uses herbs as a foundation in a limited way [1].

Pharmaceuticals are based on using specific bio-active chemicals that are analysed, synthesised and then used in the form of potent drugs [1]. In allopathic medicine, the body is regarded as a biochemical entity so illnesses are believed to be a result of errors in chemical processes and molecules thus chemicals such as pharmaceuticals are warranted in fixing and correcting the problem [1]. In response to this allopathic belief system of disease, and in substantiation and support of this same theory, it has adopted the approach of using isolated constituents from plants to correct these biochemical errors so to speak [1]. However, the human body is by far more complex than being seen to be molecules alone [1]. Herbal medicine recognises this and regards humanity as an expression of life with its innate life force thus supporting the role of herbs to work with the whole being rather than just specific symptoms [1].

Pharmaceutical drugs relied on a synthesised version of a plant’s active ingredients [3]. Herbalists and herbal medicine practitioners indicate that an active ingredient if used in isolation from the rest of the plant can either lose its impact and effectiveness or become less safe [3]. One example include the active ingredient salicylic acid which is found in the herb plant Meadowsweet is used to make aspirin [3]. Aspirin can result in bleeding in the stomach whereas Meadowsweet which naturally contains other compounds that counteract these irritant qualities of salicylic acid [3]. Herbal medicine supports that the effect of the whole plant is greater than its parts [3].

Thus I conclude that herbal medicine is an effective branch of complementary medicine that involves the use of plants in the treatment of diseases as well as to promote general health and wellbeing and they have been used in many cultures and histories of medicine way before pharmaceuticals ever emerged [3]. Herbs can work as powerfully as synthetic drugs and thus should be used with care and caution as one would approach synthetic drugs and advice from a professional herbalist should be sought when using these therapies [3]. I also stress that one should not stop taking their conventional drugs in favour of herbs without approval of your doctor as both herbal medicine and conventional pharmaceutical drugs or medicine originate from the same source [3].

REFERENCES

1) Hoffmann D, Holistic Herbal, 1990, Thorsons; pages 6-22

2) Dr Kent, James Tyler,2012, Lectures on Homeopathic Philisophy, B.Jain Publishers (P) Ltd, India

3) Herbal Medicine , March 2011, State Government of Victoria, Accessed 11th March 2013, http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Herbal_medicine

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