Herbal Medicine: What herbal medicine can treat and how safe and effective is it?
In part I of this article we looked at what herbal medicine is and what it uses as its philosophical basis. Part II looks at what herbal medicine can be used for and its safety and effectiveness.
What can herbal medicine be used for?
Herbal medicine can be used in one of three ways:
As the primary treatment for diseases and general health problems
To preventing disease, and/or
Complementary to other natural therapies or orthodox medicine
Up until about 200 years ago, herbal extracts, teas, baths, etc., were the primary forms of treatment available to doctors. In fact Pedanius Dioscorides an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist from Anazarbus, Cilicia, Asia Minor, wrote ‘the bible’ on herbs and early medicinal substances extracted from plants in the first century AD.
To this day, pharmaceutical companies still use herbal medicines in their drugs (they just don’t advertise that fact). He described over 600 medicinal plants, their use and actions with respect to treating diseases.
In the early 19th century, when methods of chemical analysis first became available, scientists began extracting and modifying the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds, beginning the transition from raw herbs to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of pharmaceuticals.Ã½
A skilled herbalist is able to use medicinal plants to treat any disease known to man. Granted, some diseases such as cancer for example, are not treated easily, but are treatable with herbs. The limit is not the limitations of herbs, but the skill of the physician. And, let’s face it – that’s the same for any system of medicine.
In short, herbal medicine has been used since the dawn of man and is still as effective today as it ever was in treating virtually any disease safely and effectively.
What forms does herbal medicine come in?
Herbal medicines come in several forms of administration. These include:
Extracts and tinctures
Creams and ointments (therapeutic creams & ointments as well as herbal skin and personal care products)
Hand, foot and sits baths
Tables & pills
Once a herbalist has identified the underlying reasons for the manifestation of the disease a patient is afflicted by and has worked out the herbal mixture required to address this disorder, it is then necessary to establish the best way of administering the herbal medicines.
One would logically think that taking the herbs in their liquid or pill form might be the best and easiest way to take the medicine, however, often it may not be.
Without getting into the details and chemistry of how active constituents of medicinal herbs are extracted, let’s have a quick look at the ways in which herbs may be used.
Extracts and tinctures are generally made by using a certain amount of the dried or fresh herb and than mixing this with alcohol. The alcohol dissolves most of the plant’s constituents and suspends them in the alcohol. This is what is basically known as a tincture.
Alcohol will extract almost all the ingredients contained in the plant material. Unlike alcohol, water will extract fewer of the ingredients. Water is a universal solvent and many of the substances contained in herbs will dissolve into the water. However, alkaloids and fats may not. If some of the alkaloids are not wanted, then a tea or sits bath (water extraction) may be preferable.
Poultices are used externally. They are prepared by crushing the plant, usually the fresh plant or parts thereof, mixing it with a base cream, honey, yoghurt or similar substance, which is then applied directly to a specific part of the body. This type of treatment is particularly effective when treating wounds, bruising, joint and bone injuries, local infections, localized skin disorders, gangrene, etc. But can also be used to treat some chronic internal diseases of organs.
In short, there are different horses for courses. In other words, the type of application will depend on the specific needs of the individual patient and their particular type of disease. For example it might not be wise to treat a patient who suffers from alcoholism and liver cirrhosis with an alcohol-based herbal mixture…
Is herbal medicine a safe form of treatment?
Herbal medicine in the hands of a qualified, experienced herbalist is very safe and has minimal risk of side effects. However, just because herbs are natural does not automatically make them safe. Remember, Arsenic is natural and deadly.
Opium from the Poppy flower is highly addictive, lead is poisonous and so are most other heavy metals, yet they are all 100% natural substances. So don’t be fooled – natural is not necessarily harmless.
Having said that, herbal medicine is one of the safest forms of medicine and is very unlikely to cause harm if used as prescribed by a qualified herbalist.
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which are mainly synthetic, man-made substances, herbs are easily assimilated in our bodies. They are also easily eliminated and do not usually accumulate. A herbalist will also frequently change the herbs in a patient’s mix as their health picture changes.
In short, herbal medicine, if prescribed by a qualified and experienced herbalist, is one of the safest forms of treatment, causing few, if any, side effects.