Superstition about demons, curses, and in Europe, lack of basic knowledge of hygiene aside, these systems were mostly effective. In the opinion of some alternative health researchers today, they were as effective as modern allopathic method for many diseases.
Not much is known about medical practices of Africa (except for ancient Egypt), and the ancient Americas, but they too, used herbs and plants, along with surgery and other medical techniques.
In the last two centuries, there has been a rise in the “scientific method,” a way of investigating and “proving,” in the Newtonian sense, whether a substance really works as a medicinal or not and in what way.
In the western world, especially North America, allopathic medicine took root and holistic medicine, viewed as old fashioned and unscientific, was pushed more and more into the background. In Europe and Asia, with centuries more behind them of holistic practices, both schools of though and medicine practices are accepted and sometimes integrated. However, in the United States, allopathic medicine has taken hold and has tried—and is still trying—to stamp out any other form of health care.
Allopathic medicine promotes the belief that most disease is caused by a pathogen invading the body and that an anti-pathogen can destroy the invader to heal the body. Although great strides have been made in the cure of many diseases, often the allopathic medicines create side effects almost as disastrous as the disease itself.
With the possible exception of cancer and aids, we are no longer in a disease crisis in the United States as we were when smallpox, polio, fatal influenza, TB, and more were rampant. However, we are in a health crisis. By ignoring the whole body in favor of allopathic specificity, we have swung the pendulum too far to one side.
Health is not just the absence of disease. It is vitality, energy, clear thought, immunity, and strength. How we treat our minds and bodies has an effect on health. We are ultimately responsible for the health and well being of our bodies. However, somewhere along the way, we seemed to have abandoned that belief.
We have adopted a code that says we put the responsibility for health in the hands of a select few who have legal and actual power over our life and death. Unfortunately, even Medical Doctors (MDs) have been caught in their own trap. For an MD to recommend any form of holistic medicine—acupressure, chiropractic, herbs, homeopathies, and such, is often to risk their reputation and their future as licensed doctors that they worked so long and hard to achieve.
The public has made this worse by relinquishing any responsibility for their own care and well being. If a doctor recommends herbs or another form of care and the patient isn’t cured, he/she can sue the doctor. Doctors live in constant dread of malpractice lawsuits, which is one factor in the high cost of malpractice insurance that runs up the cost of medical care.
Granted, there are tons of MDs who are so incompetent that they deserve the suits but many are simply doing what they can in an atmosphere of a sue-happy public. They trap works both ways. Laws in the United States often take away our right to choose health care and force us into the form of health care that has gained the most power through government lobbying and economic considerations. This led to a massive public outcry in 1993 that resulted in some concessions by the government to allow more freedom of choice where over the counter herbs are concerned. Nevertheless, it really did very little to open the field in an equitable way.
An herbalist in the United States cannot legally diagnose nor prescribe an herb for anything, even as simple as white willow bark for a headache. Nor can an herbalist suggest that you take an aspirin.
Herbalism is a system that takes into account pathogens, whole body balance, body chemistry, tradition, and scientific proof of the herb’s effectiveness in treating disease. In many places in Europe, herbalism is an accepted health care choice, as is naturopathy, homeopathy, and aromatherapy. In the United States, the FDA is gaining more and more power to tell us what we need to do for our well being, and what we can’t do.
Originally, health regulation was intended to protect us from charlatans pushing “snake oil cures” and bogus cancer cures. But, when economics entered the picture, Pandora’s box was opened. In 1993, the spark that flamed the public outcry was a proposed regulation that would require all herbs and vitamins to be dispensed only through prescription by licensed physicians. It would have made it a crime to take vitamin C or buy garlic capsules without a prescription from a doctor. The prices for herbs and vitamins would probably have soared and we would have been cut off from one more avenue of health care.
Even with the current trend in insurance companies covering or offering discounted alternative health care services, we must not relax. We must take back our right to have dominion over our own bodies and have the right to choose our health care. If regulation of herbs comes in the way, the FDA has made it clear it wants it to, herbal companies will be forced to spend millions of dollars in testing for each herb before the FDA would approve their use as a medicinal. Previous testings or centuries of proven efficacy in use would not be accepted.
Herbal companies would then have to recoup their expenditures by increasing their prices. Imagine spending $80 for a bottle of Milk Thistle tincture instead of $5-$12. In addition, many useful herbs would simply disappear because they are too easy to obtain cheaply in the wild (like milk thistle) or can be homegrown. Herbal companies couldn’t risk not recouping their losses and would likely drop them from their inventory.
Herbalism has a long history. We don’t know when humans first decided and discovered that some plants did more than nourish the body by feeding the belly. Perhaps it was by watching what some animals did when feeling ill, or by “divine intervention.” We don’t know.
However, as far back as we have written evidence of medical practices, we have reports of herbs and plants successfully used as medicine. Garlic may be the oldest known medicinal plant. Garlic cloves have been found in caves inhabited 10,000 years ago. A prescription for garlic was found on a Sumerian clay tablet from 3000 B.C. Chinese doctors mentioned Cinnamon as a medicinal as far back as 2700 B.C. Since then, there has been a lot of scientific testing on herbs including testing by the United States government.
Herbalism works closely with the body’s own immune system. You may be surprised to learn that the American Medical Association (AMA) has only recently recognized the body’s immune system at all in relation to health. It has also come as a recent surprise to the AMA that nutrition, exercise, and mental/emotional attitudes affect health.
Preventing ill health and disease has been a longstanding tradition among holistic health practices but has arrived as a new and innovative—if somewhat suspicious—concept to modern U.S. allopathic physicians.
It is finally coming to light (again) that we can only defeat illness by paying more attention to health and less attention to treating disease. However, there is also a trend for some MDs and some lay people to want herbs to act as a lateral substitute for allopathic medicines—to treat pathogens and ignore the rest of health. In other words, they are trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.
With herbs, the whole system must be taken into account and they generally do not work quickly and miraculously to erase symptoms as do many allopathic medicines. Most herbs work more slowly, and in combination with other herbs, to help the body regain health on its own. Sometimes this comes quickly, sometimes slowly, but true health is regained, not just a suppression of symptoms without examining lifestyle and emotional causative factors.
In a “natural supplement” retail store where I once worked, we had customers who made the same mistake. They would come in and ask me “What do you have for energy?” They may work 14 hours a day, take care of a family and spouse, sleep four hours a night, eat mostly caffeine, fat, and sugar but they want the magical pill that will eliminate fatigue. A suggestion of seeing a physician for a check up, proper diet, and rest as a possible relief from fatigue would be rejected and they would buy a bottle of Guarana. Guarana a natural source for strong caffeine. It can be useful for a burst of energy but if proper rest and nutrition are ignored, the body can be depleted even further possibly resulting in more serious health problems.
Herbs are not drugs. However, by their complex structures, medicinal foods (herbs) create many of the same benefits as drugs—mostly without unpleasant side effects.
For example, in a Nutrilite press release dated January 7, 2000, researchers conducted a six-month study of lutein. In the study, “blood levels of lutein increased by 28% in 21 participants, closely matching levels found in individuals who consume lutein-rich diets incorporating yellow and green fruits and vegetables. The rise was small but still significant. Researchers believe this may lower the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that affects roughly 1.7 million people over the age of 65.”
There have been numerous studies on garlic’s power to lower cholesterol in contrast to prescription drugs such as cholestyramine. Garlic has been proven to lower cholesterol and any herbalist worth his/her salt would combine garlic with other supporting herbs for a cholesterol lowering formula. But because cholestyramine is economically a money maker and garlic is not, pharmaceutical companies are not going to recommend that doctors prescribe garlic. Doctors who do—assuming they are aware of garlic’s ability in that area—risk ridicule and expulsion from membership in professional organizations such as the AMA.
How to get proof that herbs work as they are reputed to work and how to separate unfounded folklore and placebo from actual medicinal uses of plants is a problem. However, it is less so thanks to the open mindedness of many new researchers in the world. Studies done in France, Germany, China, England, and more abound. Much folklore about herbs has proven true, but much as also been discovered to be false. For example, boneset—eupatorium perfolatum—may sound like an herb to heal bones and some folklore prescribes it for that but it’s name comes from a traditional use as a cure for breakbone fever. It has proven to be useful in treating minor viral and bacterial infections by stimulating the white blood cells into action.
Folklore prescribes juniper for sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea. However, scientific testing shows it to be ineffective. Juniper does act as a diuretic and is included in an over-the-counter PMS medicine. It is effective as a part of an overall treatment for high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. High doses, over a long period of time can irritate the kidneys.
Be cautious of herbal books that do not take modern findings about the nature and action of herbs into account. Some recommended authors are Michael Castleman, Daniel B. Bowrey, Leslie & Michael Tierra, and David Hoffman.
Keep in mind that you are ultimately responsible for your health. No herb will make you healthy as long as you engage in unhealthy lifestyle habits such as eating a diet containing mostly foods devoid of proper nutrition, smoking, lack of exercise, and emotional stress. Herbs counteract pathogens and help your body heal itself but are not an excuse to engage in a disastrous, indulgent lifestyle.
Anita is a certified herbalist and studied with Michael Tierra and David Hoffman.