“One of the most thorough and comprehensive works on medicinal plants and herbal healing. Without a doubt, this fine volume has made it onto my permanent bookshelf.” —Shawn Donnille, vice president and co-owner of Mountain Rose Herbs
“Anyone interested in alternative medicine and botanical curatives will find this handsome volume useful.” —Country Gardens
“Pursell aptly demonstrates the value in learning about these gifts from nature and understanding their use in pursuit of sustainable health. . . . will quickly become indispensible for understanding a neglected field that is ripe with great benefits.” —Publishers Weekly
“Kick a winter cold by reading up on the plant-based medicines in the new book The Herbal Apothecary.” —Sunset
“Required Reading. . . . Pursell describes 100 plants and herbs with medicinal properties as well as the ways naturopaths use them, where to find them, or how to grow them at home…a beginner’s guide to making herb blends, teas, cordials, capsules, and more, with plenty of recipes.” —Gardenista
“[a] lovely handbook. . . . the wealth of photographs widens its appeal to a larger community of plant lovers.” —Choice
“The Herbal Apothecary takes both modern science and traditional healing methods into account, providing techniques for making teas, tinctures, salves, and syrups aimed at alleviating colds, headaches, and other ailments.” —Modern Farmer
“I can’t recommend enough. But don’t take it from me—two of the biggest names in the medicinal herbs community, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar and Mountain Rose Herbs co-owner and vice president Shawn Donnille, have given their seals of approval to this book as a staple addition to your herbal library.” —Powell’s Books Blog
“Perfect for anyone just beginning in herbal medicine.” —Mother Earth Living
“This is a fantastic book—well researched, exceptionally written, and artfully compiled. In addition to all that, it is a joy for the eyes and hands! We love the beautiful, crisp photography and durable, satin pages this book offers for a delightful read.” —Beneficial Botanicals
From the Back Cover
Incorporating traditional wisdom and scientific information, The Herbal Apothecary includes advice on growing and foraging for healing plants and recommendations for plant-based formulations to fight common ailments, like muscle strain, anxiety, and insomnia. Step-by-step instructions show you how to make your own teas, salves, capsules, tinctures, and other essential herbal remedies. Whether you want to treat a wound or fight the common cold, taking charge of your health and well-being begins here.
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
What is it about plants that draws us in and creates a strong desire to learn their secret ways of healing? Perhaps it is a remembrance of a time long ago, when we all knew how to use them as medicine. Or it may be a desire to deepen our connection to nature and to study its healing bounty. Some of us are driven by the simple curiosity of learning an approach to medicine that differs from that of the established mainstream. However you discovered your interest in herbal medicine, you should know that herbalism and herbal medicine are time-honored traditions with a lot to offer you, your family, and your community.
Herbs are used for healing by much of the world’s population, yet herbalism has often been considered folk healing and some herbs have been deemed unsafe for general consumption. Some may say that we don’t need to use herbs, because today we have modern medical techniques and a pill for every situation. Some believe that we should leave behind the old ways because they are ineffective, and we should adopt new ways because they are superior. As a result of such beliefs, the herbal knowledge that was once common in every household is now a rare commodity. But times are changing, and the call to return to our roots is being heard by more and more of us.
You can learn about herbs in many ways. One of the best ways to learn is from teachers who share stories and valuable knowledge. They can offer keen insights into herbs and their uses. Find teachers within your community who practice the traditional ways of herbal medicine. Take a class or workshop, or work on an herb farm. Form a mentoring relationship to gain perspectives on how to use the plants.
It is also important that you spend time with the plants. Find an herb growing in your yard, or sit outside with a cup of herbal tea. What do you see? What does it smell like? When you drink tea made from the herb, how does it make you feel? Until you’ve spent time touching, seeing, smelling, and tasting the plant, your knowledge is incomplete.
And then, of course, you can consult the many available books on herbs and herbalism. We are fortunate to have access to books written long ago and to the generations of books written since. They include many aspects and influences (such as astrology) of herbal medicine, and most agree on which plant should be used when and how each is used. This information was drawn from years of study, research, and experience. Once in a while, however, you will find information in one source that differs from what you have learned elsewhere. I continue to find humor in my students’ despair with the differing opinions they sometimes find as they research herbs. But this is a good thing! Each herbalist provides a detailed account of his or her own experience with the herb and how it works. This information results from the time the herbalist has spent with the plant. You may have a completely different experience with the same herb, and that is fine.
One thing most herbal professionals do agree about is that herbs serve particular functions when they are consumed.
- Herbs help the body eliminate waste. If the body experiences poor digestion or sluggish detoxification, herbs move out the old to make way for the new.
- Herbs promote healing. Their mineral and vitamin content help the body heal and reestablish proper form and function.
- Herbs increase overall energy in the body. Herbs provide a boost that helps the body heal and detoxify, which increases day-to-day energy levels.
This book is for the beginning herbal enthusiast who is looking for a lot of information in one place. Many books on herbs focus on specific plants, medicine-making, or the history of herbs, but I wanted to write a book with a bit of everything, from both the traditional and scientific perspectives. As an herbalist turned biochemist, turned naturopathic physician, I am a gatherer of information. This book is my attempt to share some of what I’ve learned about herbs. I think its components will help you understand herbal medicine in a philosophical, scientific, and traditional way. By weaving in anatomy, plant descriptions, and herbal treatment ideas, I have provided information that I hope will help you view this dynamic system from a holistic perspective to gain a clear understanding of how and when to use plants as medicine.
As you begin your herbal studies, remember that traditional herbalism is far more complex than what is presented in this book. Herbalism focuses on a deeper level that involves the concepts of tissue states (excitation, depression, atrophy, stagnation, tension, relaxation), the four qualities or natures (hot, cold, dry, damp), the patient’s temperament, and the energetics (the subtle energies) of the plant. If you want to know more about these subjects, read The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood (2004).
Although there are many philosophies, we don’t really know how herbs actually work as medicine. We do know, however, that they work in a holistic way to treat entire bodily systems rather than a single symptom, and they nourish and restore balance in the body so that organs in disharmony can return to optimal function. When a plant is taken into the body, it is recognized on a cellular level. Not only does the body identify the plant’s constituents, but it also seems to know how to break them down and put them to work where they are needed. Although herbs can be effective on many physiological aspects and levels, they work with the body to recognize and attend to the area in greatest need first. We can also get creative with formulation, blending various herbs into combinations that focus with even greater intention.
Many herbs are high in minerals that feed the body with the healing components needed to improve cellular regeneration, circulation, elimination, and organ function. We can scientifically test physiological function after herbs are administered to show their effectiveness. Consider several examples. Ginger contains very potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols. Several clinical studies involving arthritis patients found that ginger extracts affected the inflammatory process at a cellular level to reduce pain and inflammation. Blood cell counts measured after administration of immune-stimulating herbs show increased white cell counts. Biopsies taken after herbal administration have shown positive changes in cellular structure.
Modern medicine has done an excellent job of isolating plants and body parts, but it is severely lacking in the dynamic principles of holism and systemic unity. Whether you are considering a plant or your body, be mindful of the complete system rather than the individual parts or symptoms. When you use herbs, think about the entire plant and how it will affect the body in a holistic manner. For example, meadowsweet tea is often used to treat stomach problems and can be particularly helpful for children with diarrhea. One constituent (a scientifically active component within the herb) of meadowsweet is salicylic acid, which is an important ingredient in aspirin. When salicylic acid is taken in an isolated form, it can cause irritation to the stomach wall. But in addition to salicylic acid, meadowsweet contains antioxidants called polyphenols, which protect the stomach wall. This means that meadowsweet offers the desired action of pain relief without the side effect of stomach irritation.
In my practice, I rarely see a patient who experiences an issue in isolation. When one system or organ is struggling, it is likely that other systems or organs are suffering as well. When we use herbs, we must consider several important points as we integrate this way of thinking to treat the body from a holistic perspective.
Identify and treat the cause. Although acute situations, such as burns, can often be quickly soothed with herbs, long-standing disharmony requires investigation and the promotion of balance within all bodily systems.
Look at the whole body. What bodily discomforts do you view as normal? What symptoms have you experienced for so long that you almost don’t feel them anymore? In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, we can become disconnected to what is happening in our bodies and the signs and signals of distress.
Trust the power of nature. Take a look around, and you will see that healing plants are everywhere. Many plants that grow in particular climates are specific to treating the illnesses of that region. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, for example, rosemary and cedar grow in abundance. Both are excellent for our ever-present damp conditions that can affect the respiratory tract and joints.
Prevention is key. Don’t kid yourself that you can live a long and healthy life and do nothing to sustain it. Be an advocate for your body. Treat it well, know its signs and symptoms of distress, and learn how to assist it when it speaks to you.
Wherever you are on your herbal journey, I’m happy to be a part of it. Speaking from experience, I know it can be life changing to recognize a healing plant and use it to help you feel better. Go slowly through the book to absorb all that is contained within and reread it several times to cement certain concepts for forever learning. Most of all, get out among the plants. They are the best teachers. I hope that you will use this book as an everyday tool and view it as a bridge toward living and healing in a more holistic way. Teach yourself and share with others. Reclaim the knowledge that was once exchanged freely by all.
The Way of the Herbalist
At one time, throughout the Americas and elsewhere, plant medicine was commonly taught in households and shared within communities. Although the popularity of modern medicine has resulted in a decrease of these practices, in North America at least, the use of herbal medicine is making a mass resurgence, and herbal practitioners are guiding others through the mystery and practicality of the power of herbs.
It is difficult to pinpoint the beginnings of herbal medicine, but we do know that tribal cultures have used healing plants for many generations. Herbs were originally eaten as simple foods, but human curiosity being what it is, some devoted time and energy to experiment with plants and began recognizing their value in health and healing. Since prehistory, herbs have been used for illness and fever, broken bones, blood diseases, and many other conditions. People eventually recognized that using herbs preventatively seemed to promote some of their strongest effects, strengthening the body to fight off illness. One such example is the vinegar of the four thieves, consumed by robbers from Marseilles, France, during the bubonic plague epidemic. After plundering the homes of those who had fallen ill, none of the thieves who took daily doses of the vinegar succumbed to the plague.
At one time, medicinal herbs were often grown in home gardens, including simple herbs known for their ability to relieve fever, heal wounds, and treat bites. Herbal remedies were commonplace, and if a person didn’t know the appropriate herb to treat an illness, he could go to a house where rosemary grew, knowing this would be the place to get herbal information. Much like the telling of any good story, herbal remedies were shared when knowledge was passed from generation to generation.
Many of our grandmothers, in fact, cooked up herbal concoctions and stored them in the cupboard. At some point, as the era of modern medicine ascended, herbal remedies began to be mistrusted as inferior medicine—not because they were harmful or dangerous, but because they were considered inferior to the new synthetic medications.
Research and herbal medicine
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, German-Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus and herbalist, physician, and astrologist Nicholas Culpepper established the roles of botanical herbs, mathematics, alchemy, and astrology in medicine. Although the naturopathic elements of botany and mathematics have been elevated to legitimized professions in the present day, astrology and alchemy seem mere superstition to some. But this combination of studies is necessary to create a balanced system of learning, understanding, and using plant medicine in consistent ways. Today, scientific research has enabled us to examine plants, their properties, and how they work when used as herbal medicines. Herbal remedies have been tested and shown to provide the same results time and time again. Many herbs have been strenuously studied, and there is no denying that they do indeed have curative powers and that they are effective and safe.
Herbal research and regulation are hot topics, and, truth be told, I am not solid in my stance on these matters. But research may be helpful to further the use of plant remedies and to educate and promote awareness of the healing properties of herbs. I work with the general public, and a wide range of customers visit my herb shoppe every day, from those who know nothing about herbs, to highly skilled herbalists. Some people need a scientific explanation of how the plants are working within the body, and without this, they are skeptical of herbal remedies. Perhaps more research will open the doors for those who are less inclined to learn about herbs through traditional ways.
Important to mention is that not all research is valid. Always seek out details of any study you read. Who performed the test? Was the test performed on one aspect of the plant or the entire thing? Does the researcher make or sell a marketed product related to the test? This information can offer good insight as to whether the test is objective or subjective, depending on its intentions. I recommend the American Botanical Council (abc.herbalgram.org) and the work of its founder, herbalist Mark Blumenthal, if you are interested in furthering your interests in herbal research.
As a budding herbalist, you have a lot to consider and much to be excited about. I’ve spoken with countless people about their interest in herbs and when it began. For many, it was a simple realization that what was being presented about using herbs medicinally seemed to make a lot of sense. Unlike the often overwhelming and confusing American model of modern medicine, herbal medicine presented something familiar and comforting. I like to think that understanding the basics of herbs and how they work gives us confidence that if we or our family members experience a cold or the flu, an upset tummy, or a muscle strain, for example, we can responsibly care for ourselves and our loved ones. One aspect of herbs that I particularly enjoy is the relationship built between the person and the plants. Every journey is different, and plant medicine encourages that, offering endless resources and building bonds from knowledge and experience.
As interest in herbal medicine continues to grow, you’ll find more opportunities to get involved, and perhaps you’ll decide to devote your professional life to the study of herbal medicines, as I have done. I went to naturopathic school to obtain my doctorate in medicine so that I could be licensed to do what I wanted with herbs. I was afraid that without a credentialed degree that provided legitimacy, I would be limited in continuing my profession as an herbalist. Although school was definitely an important part of my journey as a person, my original concerns about getting the degree proved to be unwarranted. I do believe in education, particularly when it comes to using herbs, but focusing on herbs, if that is what you want to do, is the best course of action. Go into the woods, be with yourself and the plants, find teachers, take classes, and sign up for internships. Surround yourself with herbs and devote your time and study to them.
You can find teachers and herb schools in many communities, but if you want something more academically structured, Maryland University of Integrative Health, Bastyr University, and the California Institute of Herbal Studies are options to consider. If you love herbs and want to help others, study the herbs and become the herbalist you want to be. Although herbalists are not doctors allowed to practice medicine in North America, we can provide information to others about improving their health using herbs. Share what you learn so that others can benefit. I often hear students and herbal enthusiasts deny themselves the title of “herbalist.” If you love herbs and are studying them, I’m here to inform you that you are indeed an herbalist.
Herbalists at work
Herbalists are doing amazing things all around us. Consider, for example, author, healer, and teacher Rosemary Gladstar, and her work as a founder of United Plant Savers. The work of United Plant Savers involves research, education, and conservation of native medicinal plants and their habitats. Through her passion, Rosemary has become a visionary beyond the normal constructs of her career. She began blending medicinal herbs for teas in the 1970s, because she believed in the medicine and felt called to share it with others.
Mark Blumenthal is another dedicated herbalist who has truly devoted himself to the study, trade, and research of herbal medicine in North America. As the founder of the American Botanical Counsel, he encourages the public to make educated, responsible choices about herbal medicine as an accepted part of healthcare. The counsel’s mission is to provide education using science-based and traditional information to promote responsible use of herbal medicine to serve the public, researchers, educators, healthcare professionals, industry, and media. Mark started his herbal journey as a hobbyist. As a young adult in the 1960s, he began picking up herb books at natural grocery stores and visiting the woods to identify the plants he was studying. His first real business venture, selling herbs to small, local grocers, eventually grew into a company that created and distributed Mark’s own herbal products. Since then, he has become a leader in herbal product regulation. Through years of work, Mark came to realize that herbal education was the missing link in North America and decided to dedicate his life to this endeavor.
Health consultant Donnie Yance, founder of the Mederi Centre for Natural Healing in southern Oregon, is a great example of an herbalist and visionary. After he read the book Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss, his life was never the same. Inspired by herbs and their potential, he dove in headfirst and sought out herbal education through the Sequoyah College of Herbology. Eventually he opened the Centre for Natural Healing, which specializes in herbal formulation and compounding, especially for treating cancer.
Margi Flint owns and operates EarthSong Herbals, a busy family practice and herb school in Marblehead, Massachusetts. She has more than 35 years of herbal practice experience. She sees clients for consultations and offers many classes throughout the year. She is also the author of a textbook for herbalists, The Practicing Herbalist: Meeting with Clients, Reading the Body, a valuable resource for anyone interested in practicing herbalism.
Wanting to offer more opportunities for herbal education and clinical experience, Paul Berger created the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism and subsequently the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism. His work has led the way to provide herbalists with the confidence to pursue their interests in positive and successful consulting careers.
Phyllis Hogan, Linda Quintana, Mimi Kamp, Matthew Wood, Sean Donahue, Jill Stansbury, David Hoffman, Sarah Holmes, David Winston, Karyn Sanders—the list of inspiring herbalists goes on and on, but all have a common thread: their spark was ignited by a passion for herbal medicine. If you are still reading this, my guess is that your spark has also been ignited.
What does the future hold? These are exciting times for herbalists. We are witnessing the art of herbalism rapidly regaining its rightful place as a modality for health and healing. However, as herbalism flourishes and winds its way back into the mainstream, it is eliciting a unique set of problems and concerns. Be aware of such issues to protect the future of herbalism. Understand the practice of sustainable harvesting and wildcrafting, know where your herbs come from, protect habitats from destruction, educate yourself thoroughly on how herbs work within the body before using them, and support herbalist guilds and communities through membership. Most importantly, live in kindness and at peace, and enjoy yourself in whatever herbal relationship you choose, whether as a hobbyist, an enthusiast, or a professional.
An Ancient Medicine
The story of medicinal plants is an ancient one that threads many cultures from around the world into a common tapestry. The first medicinal drugs were in the form of herbs, plants, roots, flowers, and fungi. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence, including symbolic depictions and fossilized sediments of the plants depicted, which suggests that medicinal herbs were used in the Paleolithic Era, some 60,000 years ago. The first legitimized documentation of herbal remedies begins with the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), who lived more than 5000 years ago. They carved recipes on clay slabs, or tablets, that included drug preparations referring to more than 250 plants. Imagine the plant life utopia at that time! Some of these writings suggest advanced understanding of plant constituents, such as the alkaloid principles of poppy, henbane, and mandrake. These herbs must have been tried through experimentation, as no one during that time would have known the full effects of the plants. I’m sure that, for some of them, some lessons were tough to learn. The Sumerians, considered one of the world’s first urban civilizations, were originally recorded as a matriarchal society that viewed everything from a natural perspective, understanding that nature controlled all and was bountiful. Similar to Daoists, the Sumerians watched nature and its cycles to correlate similar cycles within the human body for healing practices.
In China, people were experimenting with plant medicine as well. Around 2500 BC, the first Chinese herbal, Shen Nung Pen T’sao ching, was written by Emperor Shen Nung. It focused on grasses and roots, documenting 365 herbs. An interesting and dedicated herbalist, Shen Nung personally tasted each of these herbs and—you guessed it—unfortunately died due to a toxic overdose, all in the name of plant medicine. He came from an agricultural background and was often referred to as the Yan Emperor, or divine farmer. His work is considered the basis for Chinese herbalism, which is universally accepted in China and practiced throughout the world. Many of the herbs he mentioned are still widely used today, including camphor, podophyllum, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, ginseng, gentian, and ma huang. (The ma huang shrub first brought the drug ephedrine to modern medicine.)
The East Indian traditions of Ayurveda (science of life) and the Vedas scriptures are filled with abundant references to medical treatments using plants. Ayurvedic herbalists Charaka (circa 800 BC) and Sushruta (circa 500 BC) were two of the first to write preparations from plant, mineral, and animal sources. These were the first formulations, or herbal blends, for creating healing prescriptions. Sushruta categorized plants into subdivisions according to diseases and plant treatments. Ayurvedic practices are some of the most practical when it comes to using herbs with foods, understanding the simple knowledge that food is medicine. Healing spices such as nutmeg, pepper, clove, caraway, and turmeric all descend from Ayurvedic culture and are often used today.
In another part of the world, Egyptians were no strangers to the use of plant medicine, particularly because of their close relationship with Babylonia and Assyria. They shared similar plant medicine and theurgist (supernatural) philosophies, but there is no question that Egyptians were much less fond of the metaphysics of medicine. Most of our knowledge of Egyptian plant medicine comes from the writings of historians, especially Manetho (circa 300 BC). Another valuable resource are the wall depictions of monuments and tombs. The Papyrus Ebers, written around 1550 BC, includes 700 plant, mineral, and animal species and more than 800 prescription entries. Upon discovery and translation, this was the largest materia medica (a body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of a substance used for healing) and prescription document found from this time period. Many of the prescriptions include herbs such as pomegranate, senna, castor oil, centaury, garlic, coriander, juniper, and willow. Despite Egypt’s inhospitable growing terrain and the surrounding desert, the Egyptians cultivated many indigenous plants for medicinal use.
Moving forward, although many herbalists have made significant contributions in the field of plant medicine, a few have devoted their lives to the study of herbal medicine. Here is an abbreviated history.
It is difficult to think of the roots of plant medicine without including Greek botanist Theophrastus (371–287 BC), considered the father of botany. At an early age, he began his studies under Plato. After Plato’s death, he attached himself to Aristotle. Needless to say, his interests were wide-ranging, extending from biology and physics, to ethics and metaphysics. But his love of plants resulted in his authoring two books, De Causis Plantarum and De Historia Plantarum, which generated a classification system of more than 500 medicinal plants. This was the first document of its kind to include the importance of gradual dosing to acclimate the body to treatment. This was extremely important information at the time regarding the proper use of herbs, especially those with a high toxicity content; knowing how to use them could be the difference between life and death.
Pedanius Dioscorides (AD 40–90), from current-day Turkey, was a physician, pharmacologist, and botanist who is most remembered as the first to consider plant medicine as an applied science. As a physician, he traveled extensively with Roman militaries and studied the plants in-depth wherever he went. His work De Materia Medica has been translated many times over as the primary herbal encyclopedia from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. His book offered not only plant descriptions, but also the names of each plant and foraging information. He also mentions such preparations as extracts by the maceration method followed by evaporation, and how to express the fresh juice of plants and concentrate it in the sun. De Materia Medica was also one of the first books to document how to store plants, providing the basis for modern storage.
Along this historical journey is Roman physician Aelius Galenus, or Galen of Pergamon, who escalated the teachings of Hippocrates to become the foundations of western medicine. Galen promoted and wrote often about Hippocrates’s system of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), healing modalities, and herbs. He believed that humors were formed in the body, rather than ingested, and suggested that the body reacted to consumed foods by producing different humors. Warm foods, for example, tended to produce yellow bile, while cold foods tended to produce phlegm. Other factors could affect the production of humors as well, including the time of year, a person’s age, where they lived, their profession, and even their life circumstances. Using this system, Galen was able to blend herbs to balance out deficiencies or excesses depending on a patient’s condition. His work also led to the creation of a book that compiled the first list of plant drugs with similar actions. He classified plants into simples (herbs with only one quality), composites (herbs with more than one quality), and entities (herbs with specific qualities, such as purgatives, emetics, and poisons). This classification was particularly helpful to herbalists of the time, because it provided a cross-reference for similar herbs based on treatment and condition. For 1500 years, Galus’s book was in popular use, until 1858, when his work and theories were decisively displaced by Rudolf Virchow’s newly published theories of cellular pathology.
But before Virchow, a select few had significant impacts on the field of plant medicine, including Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1165), who was sent to live with Benedictine nuns at age 8 because of her gifts as a visionary. Her experience in the monastery gardens and helping to heal the sick allowed her to accumulate extensive knowledge of plants and herbal healing techniques. She composed various books that focused on the scientific and medicinal properties of plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals, including Causae et Curae, which examined human healing through the lens of nature and its cycles. Her approach was similar to the theories of Chinese Daoism, blending a holistic approach with Hippocrates’s humors.
From the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, plant medicine was researched, documented, and shared around the world through translation. Prior to this, traditional plant medicines were consumed as simple preparations, such as teas, drops, poultices, and salves. But with new knowledge and texts becoming available, herbalists began to compound plants and ingredients, and these blends were in high demand. Herbalists had an opportunity to work empirically (based on experience) rather than experimentally, which was probably a great relief. This was the time of John Gerard, Nicholas Culpepper, and Carl Linnaeus. Despite being discounted by physicians of the time, Culpepper’s work in the healing and herbal field was still extremely popular with the masses and continues to be used today. The consensus was that the new compounded medicine was stronger, and stronger was better. Because of the value placed on these medicines, they were sold at a high price and not available to all. Sound familiar?
Plants to Pharmaceuticals
The nineteenth century provided an important turning point for herbal medicine. With the high demand for more sophisticated drugs, scientists began looking at the active constituents of plants, which led to the first experiments that isolated plant components, including alkaloids from poppies, ipecacuanha, strychnos, and quinine. With these advancements, scientific pharmacy was born, and remedies were filled with plant derivatives.
- Asiaticoside, derived from gotu kola, helps heal wounds.
- Berberine, derived from barberry, has antimicrobial and antibiotic properties.
- Camphor, derived from the camphor tree, causes dilation of the capillaries and increases blood circulation.
- Codeine, derived from the opium poppy, helps relieve pain and reduce coughs.
- Etoposide, derived from the may apple, is an antitumor agent.
- Scopolamine, derived from jimson weed, has strong sedative effects.
- Taxol, derived from the Pacific yew, is used to treat a variety of cancers.
Unfortunately, this practice led to herbal medicine being taken from the people and given to those who wanted to control it.
Currently, plant-derived pharmaceuticals make up one-fourth of the drugs available in American pharmacies. Almost all pharmacies prescribe medicines derived from plants. Many countries, including the United States, have both pharmaceutical and herbal pharmacies, and in some countries they are considered of equal importance in treating illness. In Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, for example, herbal medicines are a part of the mainstay medical experience. Knowledge about how and when to use them is offered at each pharmacy.
Despite this, most American allopathic (mainstream) doctors are neither trained nor offered continuing education on the history of plant medicine, herbal knowledge, or herbal pharmaceutical contraindications. Many suggest that plant medicine is ineffectual and dangerous, but herbalists know that education is key, and any good practitioner will include education in each treatment plan.
Pharmaceutical drugs typically consist of one chemical, whereas plants can contain hundreds. It is usually easy to determine the side effects of one chemical component, but grasping the potential side effects of the endless components in a plant is difficult. Interestingly, the multitude of components in a plant also explain why some herbs have contradicting qualities—an herb may be both stimulating and relaxing or both astringent and demulsifying. In addition, two or more of a plant’s constituents often work together to achieve a physiological effect. The bark of cat’s claw is a good example. Research on extracts of the whole cat’s claw plant demonstrated its ability to boost the human immune system. In efforts to understand the aspects that accomplish this, scientists isolated and extracted several alkaloids, hoping to identify the single component that provided this benefit, so that it could be replicated and marketed. As it turned out, the isolated alkaloids were actually much weaker in action when they were separated from the rest of the plant. In cat’s claw, alkaloids and tannins synergistically work together to optimize the body’s immune system.
Those developing new pharmaceuticals may also encounter a variety of problems. In particular, they cannot patent crude plant preparations—in other words, they cannot patent nature. Therefore, drug developers are constantly on the lookout for single plant components that they can isolate and change slightly so they can patent it. Consider coumarin, for example, which is found in red clover, aniseed, fenugreek, and other herbs. Coumarin increases blood flow in the veins and decreases capillary permeability. After isolating coumarin from a plant, biotechnicians added a small salt molecule. This did not alter the action of coumarin, yet it produced a new substance that was patentable.
The biological activity of a newly produced pharmaceutical drug is of little importance to its manufacturer, because the drug can be controlled through increasing or decreasing dosage and application. After they’ve identified and extracted the chemical compounds and created the drug, they can manipulate it by adding other chemical elements to change the way it performs. In an alchemic context, this is quite amazing. Dosing is key, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a drug is safe.
Prescribed drugs have very specific dosing requirements, but even if a patient takes the appropriate amount, the drug can be toxic and can even lead to death.
In 2004 I attended the Medicines of the Earth conference in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This is one of my favorite conferences because of the wide range of speakers and topics, and it tends to be research- and science-heavy. That year, a panel of leading herbalists, including David Hoffman, Donnie Yance, and Jill Stansbury, cited several statistics that left an impression on me. The topic was herbal safety, and during the discussion, someone mentioned the staggering number of hospitalizations and deaths related to pharmaceutical drugs, a number that grows each year. Melody Peterson, author of Our Daily Meds (2008), states that approximately 100,000 Americans die each year from properly prescribed medications as a result of known side effects. What this means is that the doctor prescribed the medication correctly, the pharmacist filled it correctly, but the medication simply failed the patients, leading to their deaths.
Since 1983, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has recorded every type of poisoning that has occurred in the United States, including those caused by dietary and herbal supplements. Keep in mind that most herbal medicine poisonings are caused by someone taking too much of something and not necessarily the prescribed or proper dose. Even with that consideration, the numbers of annual deaths resulting from herbs is still less than 1 percent of the total annual deaths resulting from prescription drugs.
Many pharmaceutical compounds include inorganic components that the body either struggles to break down or cannot break down, and this can cause cellular communication issues and toxicity within the body. In addition, most pharmaceuticals lead to acidity in the body, which inhibits proper digestion of nutrients. By nature, plants contain many of the same compounds found in the human body, which enables cellular recognition and the body’s innate ability to break down the components.
Finally, pharmaceutical drugs are prescribed to mask the symptoms a patient is experiencing. Here’s an (oversimplified) example. You have chronic heartburn, so you take acid-blockers. Although these drugs may change your day-to-day digestive state for a while, most of them eventually become ineffective, and their long-term use can cause other health issues. Herbs certainly can be used to treat acute symptoms, but the herbal medicine philosophy is to treat the underlying cause to improve overall health and be rid of the need for medications.
We are in the midst of an era in which synthetic drugs and antibiotics are failing to keep us healthy, and this makes plant medicine even more important.
Herbal supplementation costs less than a typical pharmaceutical prescription. The beauty of herbs is that they are often readily available in nature, and if you are qualified and trained to identify the herb in the wild, and the plant is not protected in some way, it is free for the taking. And the various application options—from tea, to poultices, to washes, to liquid extracts—give us a wide cost variable that makes one form or another available for every economic class.
Why else do we use herbs? They enable us to be proactive in our health so that in our later years, we can hope to have fewer health compromises. You have only one body, so treat it like a temple. Give thanks every day. How you do so is your choice.
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