For some time now, the term Herbal Medicine has been used to describe the use of natural substances for treating of disease and various disorders. However, herbal medicine encompasses more than just the humble herb, it utilises barks, nuts, grains, and a myriad of substances that are strictly speaking not herbal in origin...
What's in a Name?
Herbal Medicine, Botanical Medicine or Traditional Pharmacology?
Herbs, medicinal plants, botanicals or what ever name you like to call plants containing substances with the ability to treat disease and various health problems, have been used for thousands of years in just about every culture on earth.
The Chinese have a very extensive herbal pharmacopoeia with a written history going back some 2000 years. The Egyptians too have used herbs and essential oils to treat disease, for cosmetic reasons and even in preparing their dead for the afterlife.
Herbal medicine in Europe is equally old and has been traditionally used for millennia by the Greeks, Romans, but even before that. There is evidence that Neanderthal used various plants for various reasons and graves have been discovered wherein certain plants and seeds of plants where contained. Whether or not Neanderthal used these plants as medicines is anyone's guess, but there would seem to be evidence supporting this idea.
The point of this is just to illustrate, that herbs and their medicinal properties have been known and used thousands of years ago and they are still as effective as back then. The difference is that with the aid of modern technology, we can look at the specific ingredients contained in the complex chemical structure of various herbs and test the effectiveness of active ingredients. An example is Salicylic acid contained in the bark of the White Willow - we get it at the chemist and know it as Aspirin.
There are many useful herbs and this article is not about listing herbs and their medicinal properties and applications, but we will look at some categories of herbs and their nature in an attempt to identify possible nomenclature (terminology) that more accurately describes the components of natural substances which are included in the term Herbal Medicine.
For example Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an oldie but a goodie; its uses as a sedative herb have long been established and even orthodox medicine has adopted it, though be it in synthetic preparations called Valium, for its relaxing and calming effects.
Similarly, many powerful herbs like Ephedra (Ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine), which dries up a runny nose and provides relief in sinus congestion, just to mention a few of its benefits, has been incorporated in orthodox medicine.
There are many useful herbs (Scullcap, Dandelion, Echinacea, Vervain, False Unicorn Root, Eyebright, Chamomile, etc.) which have powerful effects on a wide variety of disorders. Even some culinary herbs such as peppermint, basil, fenugreek, garlic, onion, all have health and nutritional benefits.
Fruits too are not only nutritious, but some have potent medicinal uses. For example the humble Hawthorn berry (Cretaceous off.) has constituents that will benefit the heart. Similarly, Juniper berries have a marked effect on the kidneys. Vegetables too have known medicinal effects, just think of Fenugreek, Alfalfa, Onion, Garlic and others.
The term herbal medicine is clearly limiting in its description, as we just saw, not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts and grains can be of medicinal use and are often referred to as herbs and lumped into the term herbal medicine.
Maybe the term Botanical medicine would be a more accurate description of the use of plants with medicinal properties? This would mean that instead of using the term herbs, we would use the term botanicals to describe natural substances that are being used to treat various health conditions.
Botanicals (medicinal substances obtained from plants) include vegetables, fruits, even nuts and grains, which at least is more encompassing, but what about medicinal substances such as honey? Okay, I know I'm starting to split hairs here, but honey is not a plant, nor can it be obtained without the processing of pollen by the humble bee?
In traditional Chinese medicine for example, minerals, animal parts and products, as well as plants, are described as 'herbal medicine' - surely we need a more accurate term that incorporates more than just the traditional weeds and herbs growing in the fields and gardens, don't we?
So, if herbal medicine and botanical medicine is not descriptive enough, let's look at alternatives. Considering that orthodox medicine, or rather the drugs which chemists and doctors prescribe, have their origins in 'herbal medicine' may be we could call it Traditional Pharmacology?
We could also just call it pharmaceuticals.., but that would probably be too confusing and not differentiate prescription of natural medicinal substances from synthetic or modern drug prescriptions.
No matter how we look at it, I believe we do need to re-think the terminology for the use of natural healing substances which include herbs, weeds, flowers, barks, vegetables, grains, minerals, etc.
My hope in writing this article is to receive some food for thought and feedback as to what others are thinking in relation to the name herbal medicine...
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