An Introduction to Herbalism

What Is Herbalism?

Herbalism is what we relied on before we could synthesize a wide range of chemical compounds isolated from medicinal plants. At various points in time, people realized that eating a certain plant reduced pain. Or they ate a variety of things and found that one food reduced their symptoms when they suffered from an infection or particular set of symptoms. What we consider herbalism is the distilled wisdom of generations of people. That knowledge was accumulated over thousands of years. It was enhanced by deliberate experimentation and desperate trial and error.

With the advent of agriculture, people started raising medicinal plants. With advances in science, the beneficial compounds in medicinal plants an herbalist might have prescribed were isolated.

What Is an Herbalist?

Before you had a pharmacist, you had an herbalist. There may have been herbal remedies everyone knew such as standard treatments for cuts and headaches. The herbalist had a much deeper well of knowledge. They generally had a far greater collection of plants, animal parts and minerals, as well. This meant they had a literal pharmacy at their disposal, and they knew how to use it. Herbalism can also be called phytotherapy. The word literally means to treat with plants.

Herbalists fell out of favor for a number of reasons. It was partially due to the idolization of science and artificial compounds meant to mimic the natural. Yet we still use aspirin derived from willows and hundreds of other drugs derived from other natural plants. And revolutionary discoveries like antibiotics often stemmed from experimentation. For example, penicillin came from a mold. Lovastatin, a cholesterol reducing drug, is derived from a different mold.

Is Herbalism Relevant Today?

Herbalism remains relevant, though this isn’t always apparent. For example, many drug companies are paying archeologists and biochemists to learn about traditional medicine in many remote corners of the world. The goal of these ethnobotanists is to identify new plants to explore for active compounds to treat various disorders. This is actually preferred over hundreds of thousands of plants, identifying millions of compounds and then testing them against everything from HIV to cancer. The herbalist can tell them what plants are effective, what they’re used for and what the side effects are. You now know what plants to take back to the lab and what limited range of conditions to test it for. More importantly, they may learn about side effects and negative interactions to avoid. And it has a track record of safe use in humans.

This type of research led to the blockbuster breast cancer drug Taxol. It is derived from the endangered Pacific Yew tree. A more recent example is the likely use of Artemisin as a treatment for malaria strains becoming immune to quinine derived drugs. Artemisin itself is a traditional anti-malaria treatment from Chinese medicine. And quinine was originally derived from the bark of a South American tree.

The potential value of many undiscovered species may spur conservation efforts, but it certainly leads to the protection and cultivation of identified herbal remedies. And the ability to raise the plants or fungi is a cost effective way to scale up demand until you isolate key compounds and can deliver them to end users.

 Janice Neuzil

♥ Wolf Wellness Foundation.org
 © Janice Neuzil | All rights reserved

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