Alternative Medicine: Herbal Medicine

Alternative Medicine


Alternative Medicine: The role of Herbal Medicine

Herbal Medicine is the oldest form of treatment practiced by mankind. However, herbal medicine is not as such considered one of the traditional alternative medical systems, but does form part of each one with the exception of Homeopathy. Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic and Naturopathic medicine all include herbal medicine as part of their treatment approaches, and as such we will consider herbal medicine as a separate alternative medicine.

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Herbal Medicine

Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and Naturopathy all have herbal medicine as a major part of their therapeutic arsenal. Using primarily local plants, each of these systems have developed a complex system of herbal medicine. Yet herbal medicine is not restricted to any one system of medicine. Native American indians also use herbal medicine as their primary source of medical cures. Almost every tribe of what ever culture have a system of herbal medicine to treat their diseases and health problems.

Some systems of herbal medicine also include minerals as well as animal products. For example tradtitional Chinese medicine uses several animals or parts of animals in their pharmacopeia.

Homeopathic medicine also uses plants, animals, and minerals in their pharmacopeia, however, their system of preparing medicines which are taken internally is completely different to any of the other systems of alternative medicine (for more information about Homeopathy see Homeopathic Medicine).

Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary healthcare. In the last twenty years in the United States, increasing public dissatisfaction with the cost, efficacy and potential of side-effect of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in the use of herbal medicines. In countries such as Germany and Switzerland, roughly 600 to 700 plant-based medicines are available are prescribed by approximately 70% of physicians.

How do Herbs Work?

For most herbs, used in herbal medicine, the specific ingredient that causes a therapeutic effect is not known. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and it is likely that they work synergistically to produce the therapeutic effects. Many factors affect how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality, altitude, etc.) in which a plant grew will affect its constituents. In addition, how and when it was harvested and processed will also influence the quality of the resulting herbal extract.

How are herbs used?

For the reasons described in the previous section, herbalists prefer using plant extracts from the whole herb or various parts such as roots, flowers, seeds, etc., rather than extracting single active ingredients from them. Herbal extracts have many components and are usually too complex to manufacture synthetically by the pharmaceutical industry.

These components contained in medicinal herbs work together to produce therapeutic effects, while at the same time moderating potential side-effects often associated with pharmaceutical preparations. Several herbs are often used together to enhance effectiveness and synergistic actions and to reduce toxicity.


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