National Herbal Medicine Week 16th - 22nd September 2013
Herbal Medicine was used here in Australia by the Indigenous population, as well as in Ancient Egypt, China, India, the Arab world, Europe, Britain, Greece and Rome. Many of the plants used by these early healers are still used today – such as poppy, garlic and eucalyptus.
Many pharmaceutical medicines were originally sourced from, or their chemical constituents based on, plant ingredients. These include the contraceptive pill, aspirin, digitalis heart drugs, morphine and most recently, anti-malarial drugs.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 80% of people in some third world countries depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs134/en/)
There are many popular ways to consume medicinal herbs. These can include adding herbs to food/drink, using the dried herb to make a tea, using a liquid herb (the dried herb is soaked in a water/alcohol mixture in order to release active constituents), decoction (where hard/woody parts of a herb are boiled), or in aromatherapy (the oil is extracted from the plant and inhaled).
Herbs are constantly being researched to help us learn more about their potential therapeutic activity. Certain herbs are being investigated to see if they have use in cancer treatments, diabetes, heart function/cholesterol, kidney disease, depression, anxiety, alzheimers disease, blood pressure and reproductive issues. And there is more research happening around the world all the time.
Herbal medicines do face some challenges – these can include variations in the plant itself when it is being grown (eg. climatic conditions, soil quality), overharvesting and pesticide use. Herbs can also be stored incorrectly (exposed to heat or damp) which can impact the quality & safety of the herb. Herbs can also be incorrectly identified, and substitution of a similar species (which may not have the same therapeutic effect, and in fact may be harmful) can be common.
Despite being ‘natural’, herbs can potentially have safety issues, such as allergic reactions, overdosing, and side effects. Some herbs are also known to interact with pharmaceutical medications (this can be in a positive or negative way), or are not suitable for pregnancy/breastfeeding. If you are considering taking herbal medicine, it is a good idea to consult a properly qualified herbalist, who will be aware of potential issues and can adjust a herbal prescription accordingly.
Medicinal herbs are in use every day for many common health problems – including stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, menopausal symptoms, infertility, low immunity, inflammation, thyroid issues, allergies, insomnia, cognition, pregnancy, skin problems such as eczema, and urinary tract infections….and many more.
Centuries ago, the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ was a popular concept. This was the belief that God had ‘stamped’ on plants the keys to deciphering which herbs were to be used for different ailments. By looking at the size, shape, and colour of the plant, and seeing if it matched a body part or characteristic would influence which herbs chosen for healing purposes. For instance, a yellow-coloured plant may have been used for disorders associated with the liver, and heart-shaped leaves were used for heart problems.
Different parts of herbs are used medicinally. For some herbs the flowers are the part commonly used, in others the berries, seeds, leaves, roots/bulb, sap, or bark are considered medicinal. The part used may have an effect on the herb’s therapeutic action – for instance, American Indians used to use the root of the Echinacea plant. Modern research has shown that it is the root of a certain species of Echinacea that has a higher level of the active constituent than the leafy parts of the plant.