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Herbal medicines (Proceedings)
Herbs have been an integral part of our diet and pharmacy since mankind began roaming the earth.
Herbs have been an integral part of our diet and pharmacy since mankind began roaming the earth. Coprophytic evidence points to herbal use by Cavemen. Early herbalists have practiced their trade since the times of recorded history in all parts of the world including China, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa, England, the Americas, and Europe. Many herbs are mentioned in the Bible.
Typically, plants were used as a part of unity with nature, their medicinal uses based on an intuitive feel for their application along with observed results. Early herbal uses often combined with such practices as shamanism, bleeding, fumigation, poulticing, rubbing, and urtication. Most cultures combined a ritualistic approach to planting and harvest as well as with the collection of wild species.
There are several aspects to herbology that are key to understanding how the medicinal herbs are used. Following are some of these keys:
Herbs Offer Full-spectrum Medicinal Effects
Herbs may be used simply because they supply vital nutrients. Herbs also provide a full spectrum of medicinal potency – from having a mild stimulating (or relaxing) effect to providing the practitioner with a highly potent and specific medicinal quality. Finally, herbs can be potent enough to be toxic to organ systems, even causing death.
Herbs Are Tonic
Many of our commonly used medicinal herbs are tonics. A tonic is any substance that balances the biochemical and physiological events that comprise body systems. A tonic herb has the ability to act with the body bi-directionally (see below), and the body is able to select and utilize what it needs from a tonic herb.
Examples of tonic herbs include: Echinacea, Licorice root, Hawthorn berry, Cayenne, Dandelion root, Turmeric, Valerian root, Ginger, Red Raspberry, Saw Palmetto, Motherwort, Rosemary, Kelp, Wild Yam, Sarsaparilla, Astragalus, Gingko biloba, etc.
Herbs Contain Compounds That Act Synergistically
Each individual herb will often contain several dozen chemical compounds, all of them medically active. What's more, these compounds act in synergy, creating an end-product medicinal effect that is much greater than the sum of any (or all) of the single "active ingredients".
The Medicinal Quality of Herbs Is Often Bi-directional
Most individual herbs contain "balancing" chemical compounds -- ie biochemically active constituents that work on the body in opposite directions. An example of bi-directionality exists within ginseng: Ginseng has two fractions -- Rb ginsenosides and Rg ginsenosides which have opposing actions on blood pressure. (Ginseng also contains constituents that raise blood sugar levels and substances that lower blood sugar.)
It is this bi-directionality that makes the herbs particularly safe to use...if we use the whole herb and not an extract of one of its chemical compounds.
Herbs May Be Adaptogenic
At least two herbs, Siberian Ginseng and Licorice root, are adaptogens. An adaptogen has a salutary effect on nearly all organ systems of the body, enhancing their natural ability to function and their capacity to deal with stress.
Herbs Are Empowering
As you learn about the herbs, you also learn about your own geography. As you learn to use the herbs for healing, you empower yourself with the ability to provide for your own health, gathered from your own backyard.
Potency Among Herbs and Between Individual Herbs of the Same Species Varies Considerably
Several factors enter in here: Whether the plants were grown organically, growing conditions, place of growth, time of harvest, harvest method, processing or extraction methods used, storage procedures, etc. The variables are so numerous it makes it almost impossible to evaluate herbal potency...unless you specifically know and trust your source. (See Empowerment, above)
In general, a whole, fresh and organically grown herb will have the most medicinal potency, especially when considering the full spectrum of medicinal activity available from the plant. Whole herbs can be added directly to the menu (spices for example, or as an additional flavor for salads), or they can be made into teas.
Herbal extracts use some medium (alcohol, glycerol, etc.) to extract the major (but not all) active ingredients. For most herbs, alcohol is by far the best extractor. Extracted herbal products (alcohol extracted or otherwise) are then made into tinctures, or the liquid is dried and placed on a powdered carrier which is subsequently made into capsules or tablets. (The alcohol content of liquid tinctures may be of concern to some users. However, consider that 6 dropperfuls of an average liquid herbal extract contain only 0.09 of an ounce of alcohol; a 12 ounce glass of beer contains, on average, 0.4-0.6 ounces.)
Capsules and tablets are a convenient and inexpensive way to take herbs. They may contain either the entire herb, ground up, or an extracted portion of the herb. Adulterants or high quantities of filler may also be present. What's more, absorption is often not as great as with tinctures or whole herbal products, and there is some evidence that oral (mouth) contact adds greatly to the potency of the herb.
There are two types of standardized extracts, extracts that have been certified to contain the stated amount of specific constituents:
a) "Whole Plant Standardized Extract": The whole plant is extracted and the plant's constituents are guaranteed to be above a certain level.
b) "Purified Standardized Extract": An herbal extract is made with one of the many solvents, and the "active ingredient(s)" are removed from the parent plant. (Remember, in this way, the original balance of the herb is significantly altered, as one constituent is "pumped up" above its normal levels.)
Other "Delivery Systems" for Herbs
Herbs are readily absorbed through the skin and many herbs are highly medicinal when used topically. The medicinal effects of the herbs when applied topically are often both local and systemic. Lung absorption is also important. Herbs may be added to baths or soaks for skin absorption as well as adding therapeutic value from the aroma. Aromatherapy makes extensive use of the medicinal qualities of herbal fragrance as well as the absorption of herbal essences through the skin. To enhance lung absorption, herbs can be smoked or used as a smudge.
There is perhaps no easier (nor better) way to benefit from the herbs than to add them to our daily diets. Herbs contain a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals, and many culinary herbs have a high content of antioxidants and other nutritional supplements. In addition, many of our commonly used dinner herbs are highly medicinal.
Of course, herbs can have side effects. Some patients have individual susceptibilities to one or the other of the herb's chemical constituents; caution should be used whenever a patient is pregnant, debilitated, or aged; and some herbs are contraindicated with certain conditions. Many of the reported side effects of the herbs have been caused by herbal extracts, not the whole herb. However, to avoid problems, know your herbs. In general, if an herb is a known tonic or a culinary herb, it has likely been used by millions of people for centuries with virtually no problems.
Herbs Are Good For?
Almost any ailment known to man or beast...if we do not expect them to be as quickly effective or as deeply medicinal as some of our western-medicinal drugs. Herbal medicines typically act slowwwwwwwly and subtly. And, herbs are effective...if we do not rely solely on the herbs as our total pharmacy. To put this another way: Herbs are very supportive of any medicinal protocol you might prefer. But, if you've just been hit by a car, you probably do not want to call for an herbalist first.
Herbs Are Ever-present, In Your Own Backyard
Highly potent medicinal herbs can be found (or grown) in your own backyard. Prime examples include: Dandelion, Yarrow, Mullein, Chicory, Chickweed, Motherwort, Calendula, Plantain, Stinging Nettle, Rose Hips, Mints, Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea), Burdock, Hawthorn, etc.
Commonly Used Herbs:
Calendula, Calendula officinalis:
Aloe, Aloe vera
Plantain, Plantago major/minor:
Lavender oil, Lavendula officinalis
Burdock root, Arctium lappa: Lymphatic cleanser; for treating dry, scaly skin conditions.
Dandelion root, Taraxacum officinalis: Diuretic, liver supportive.
Echinacea, Echinacea spp.: Balances the immune system, and anti-microbial.
Gingko, Ginkgo biloba: Used to enhance brain function; for tinnitus.
Ginseng, Panax ginseng or Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian): Enhances physical performance and diminishes depression. Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen.
Hawthorne berries, Crataegus osycanthoides: Cardiac tonic.
Licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra: An adaptogen. Has glycosides with structures similar to natural steroids in the body.
Milk thistle, Silybum marianum: For liver conditions.
Oregon/Mountain grape root, Berberis aquifolium (Golden seal, Hydrastis canadensus): Anti-microbial, especially for mucus membranes.
Oats, Avena sativa: (Valerian, Valeriana officinalis; cat nip, Nepeta cataria): Calming.
Slippery elm bark, Ulmus fulva: For intestinal upset.
St. John's wort, Hypericum perforatum: For depression. Anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.
Spice herbs (cayenne, ginger, oregano, turmeric, etc.)
A Short Herbal Bibliography
Foster, Steven; "Herbal Renaissance"; Gibbs Smith
Gladstar, Rosemary; "Herbal Healing for Women"; Fireside
Hoffman, David; "New Holistic Herbal"; Element
Kidd, Randy; "Dr. Kidd's Guide to Herbal Dog Care"; and "Dr. Kidd's Guide to Herbal Cat Care"; Storey Publishing
Medical Economics Company; "PDR for Herbal Medicines"
Mowery, Daniel; "Herbal Tonic Therapies"; Keats Publishing
Rector-Page; Linda; "Herbal Pharmacist"
Rose, Jeanne; "Herbs and Things"; Perigee
Tierra, Michael; "Way of Herbs"; Pocket Books
Wynn, Susan G. and Barbara Fougere; Veterinary Herbal Medicine
Wynn, Susan G.; Emerging Therapies: Using Herbs and Neutraceuticals for Small Animals
Zand, Janet et al; "Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child"; Avery Publishing