The history of the world’s first drugs and how to use them safely.

What are Herbs?

Herbs were the first drugs that humans had available. Our ancestors discovered, over time, different ways to preserve and extract the healing compounds from the plants. In different areas of the world, most cultures have extensive knowledge about local plants and their natural benefits.

Modern research has proven what ancient civilizations knew about treating illnesses with herbs. For example, Echinacea has been shown to increase immune cell response and help fight infection from viruses and bacteria. This helps explain this herb’s ability to fight off colds.

Long ago, a large selection of medicinal plants was widely available. Today’s herbs are found in capsule, liquid and spray forms, and don’t even resemble a living plant. These products contain combinations of herbs or compounds that have been isolated and highly concentrated.

In order to make educated, informed choices about available herbs, it’s a good idea to have a basic knowledge of herbs, their benefits, and how they work

medicinal herbs

What is Herbal Medicine?

An herb is any plant material that is used to alleviate unwanted symptoms or improve health.

Herbal medicine is the use of plants, plant extracts, or plant preparations to improve health. It is one of many healing techniques that are categorized as alternative medicine.

Herbal medicine and other alternative methods share two foundational principles. One is working with the body instead of against a disease, as mainstream medicine does. Alternative methods enhance the body’s ability to fight disease. The second principle is the use of medicinal plants instead of pharmaceutical drugs.

Medicinal plants are the basis of herbal medicine, aromatherapy, and flower therapies. Herbs play a key role in homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy. Medicinal plants are connected to nutritional therapies because some herbs, like onions and apples, are foods.

How Herbs and Drugs are Alike

Understandably, medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals are considered opposite, but share commonalities.

About 25% of all pharmaceuticals are still derived directly from plants. Quinine, a treatment for malaria, was extracted from South American cinchona bark almost 500 years ago. Digitalis, a treatment for congestive heart failure, comes from foxglove. Aspirin originally came from the extract of white willow bark and meadow-sweet. The active antiseptic ingredient in Listerine, thymol, comes from thyme essential oil.

Both medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals contain compounds that alter body processes. For infection, one might take a prescription antibiotic or natural antibiotics found in garlic or goldenseal. Compounds from the drug or the herb enter the bloodstream and assist the immune system in eliminating the problem.

Herbs and drugs are both scientifically studied very similarly. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City studied Ginkgo extract as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. They took 309 people who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and gave them either Ginkgo extract or a placebo for a year. In comparison, Ginkgo significantly slowed mental deterioration. Since this was such a large and rigorous study, it was published in the Journal of The American Medical Association and established Ginkgo as a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s.

ginkgo biloba

How Herbs and Drugs are Different

Herbs tend to be less potent than pharmaceutical drugs, which makes them safer.

Pharmaceuticals are made by extracting chemical constituents from plants or creating synthetic versions in a lab, then pack large amounts into pills or capsules. With most herb products, the plant material limits how much of the medicinal compounds you get.

Sometimes the high potency of pharmaceuticals is necessary. For severe pain, a stronger drug may be needed even though it could cause unpleasant side effects. The lesser pain of something like a tension headache may be alleviated with a cup of chamomile tea, with much lower risk of side effects.

Effectiveness, with fewer side effects, is why medicinal herbs are popular. The potential side effects of some medications can cause more problems, and actually make you feel worse than better. In comparison, many herbal medications have no known side effects for healthy individuals who don’t take prescription or over the counter drugs. Many are safe for everyone except pregnant or nursing mothers and infants. Some are even safe for babies.

Herbal remedies must be used with care and caution. You can’t assume that because medicinal plants are natural, they are harmless.

For example, licorice root is a scientifically proven treatment for ulcers; if you take large amounts or for extended periods, you could have water retention that raises your blood pressure to hazardous levels. Herbs and herbal products can be highly beneficial when used responsibly. However, when used carelessly, they can be harmful.

Herb Safety Tips

Medicinal Plants and Their Uses
  • Be well informed. Read about herbs before using them. Get information from a reliable and reputable source that focuses on safety.
  • Start with a low dose. Herb dosages are usually presented as ranges. For example, 1-2 teaspoons of herb per cup of boiled water, steeped for 10-20 minutes and taken 2-3 times a day. Start at the low end of the recommended range, with 1 teaspoon steeped 10 minutes twice a day. If this doesn’t provide relief, gradually move toward the top of the recommended range. If you still don’t experience a noticeable benefit, talk to an herbalist, naturopath, or your doctor.
  • For commercial preparations, like teas, tinctures/extracts, pills, capsules, combination products, follow the label directions. These may vary in strength and some are concentrated.
  • If you experience unusual symptoms within 8 hours of taking herbal medicine, discontinue use. Everyone reacts differently. If you’re sensitive, you may have side effects and allergic reactions even at low doses.
  • Do not give herbal medicines to children without the approval of the child’s doctor.
  • If you’re over age 65, stick with dosages at the low end of the recommended ranges. Sensitivity to drugs and medicinal compounds in herbs increases with age. So does the risk of side effects.
  • If you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you have chronic illness and are taking any medication, do not take medicinal herbs without consulting your physician.
  • If you consult an herbal practitioner, follow their instructions and promptly report any unusual symptoms to them or to your doctor.
Herbal Medicine for a Healthy Body

Using Herbs Safely

Skeptical doctors warn that herbs are dangerous, that it’s impossible to guarantee good dose control. Meaning that you can’t know exactly how much of the active ingredient you are getting per dose.

To an extent, this is correct. With pharmaceutical drugs, the amount of active chemical is precise. With herbs, potency can vary with the health of the plant, how much time the product spent in storage and other factors. When used as recommended by reputable herbalists, medicinal herbs are almost always less potent than their pharmaceutical counterparts. With most herbal remedies, the risk of overdose is so tiny, it’s almost nonexistent, according to the latest research.

This is not to say you can buy anything that claims to be natural or herbal, use it in any way, and expect safety and effectiveness.

Extremely high doses of ephedra, a stimulant herb, have caused deaths. Some essential oils are very dangerous when taken internally, even in small amounts. That’s why their labels warn you not to ingest them. Some herbs have interactions with drugs or other herbs that can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. Some can even interact with food substances as common as caffeine.

As with any product, the most important thing to do before using an herb is to read the label carefully and completely. Don’t take an herbal product because a friend says it works. Take the right amount of the right herb at the right time for the correct number of days. If you have an ongoing health problem or are taking a prescription drug, it is essential to consult your doctor before starting an herbal regimen.

Do you use medicinal herbs? If so, comment below and let me know which ones you like and how you use them.

Resource: Balch, P. (2010) Prescription for Nutritional Healing.

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