History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine, sometimes referred to as botanical medicine or herbalism, involves the use of plants, or parts of plants, to treat injuries or illnesses. This field also covers the use of herbs or botanicals to improve overall health and wellness. Herbalist, herbal medicine practitioners, traditional medicine practitioners, and Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and naturopathic healers all use herbal remedies in their practices.

Seeds, leaves, stems, bark, roots, flowers, and extracts of all of these have been used in herbal medicine over the millennia of their use. These supplemental treatments have been delivered raw, in teas and tinctures, as topical applications, in liquid forms, and in pills and capsules. In the beginning the plants were consumed raw or combined with hot water as a soup or tea. Later, the plants were dried and crushed for other uses. The plants were found in the wild and uses were often based on superstitious or visual cues. Plants were often used to treat body systems because they were shaped like that body part or because they grew in a particular area. As science began to take a closer look at herbal remedies, their use became more refined. Herbs, and other plants, are actually the precursors to many of today’s medicinal drugs. Some of the pharmaceutical medications on the market are extracts of some of these traditional herbs.

Today, many modern, and Western, medicine practitioners are beginning to look at herbal remedies for some common, and not-so common, disorders. The lower cost, and often safer use, has attracted many medical professionals. Some physicians use herbs to off-set the side effects of pharmaceuticals.

Timeline of the History of Herbal Medicine

No one knows, for sure, when humans began using herbs for medicinal purposes. The first written record of herbal medicine use showed up in 2800 B.C. in China. Since then the use of herbs has gained, and fallen out of, favor many times in the medical field. The timeline that follows shows some of the key dates and major points in the history of herbal medicine.

2800 B.C.– The first written record of herbal medicine use showed up. (Titled the Pen Ts’ao by Shen Nung)

400 B.C.– The Greeks joined the herbal medicine game. Hippocrates stressed the ideas that diet, exercise and overall happiness formed the foundation of wellness.

50 A.D.– The Roman Empire spread herbal medicine around the Empire, and with it the commerce of cultivating herbs.

200 A.D.– The first classification system that paired common illnesses with their herbal remedy appeared. This was prepared by the herbal practitioner Galen.

800 A.D.– Monks took over the herbal field with herbal gardens at most monasteries and infirmaries for the sick and injured.

1100 A.D.– The Arab world became a center of medicinal influence. Physician Avicenna wrote the Canon of Medicine, which gave mention to herbal medicines.

1200 A.D.– Black Death spread across Europe and herbal medicines were used along side “modern” methods such as bleeding, purging, arsenic and mercury with equal, or better, results.

1500 A.D.– Herbal medicine and herbalists were promoted and supported by Henry VII and the Parliament, due to the large number of untrained apothecaries giving substandard care.

1600 A.D.– Herbs were used in treating the poor, while extracts of plant, minerals, and animals (the “drugs”), were used for the rich. The English Physician, an herbal explaining the practice of herbal medicine, was written during this time.

1700 A.D.– Herbal medicine got another high profile endorsement from Preacher Charles Wesley. He advocated for sensible eating, good hygiene and herbal treatments for healthy living.

1800 A.D.– Pharmaceuticals began to hit the scene and herbal treatments took a back seat. As side effects from the drugs began to be documented, herbal remedies came into favor again. The National Association of Medical Herbalists was formed, and later renamed the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH.)

1900 A.D.– lack of availability of drugs during World War I increased the use of herbal medicines again. After the war pharmaceutical production increased and penicillin was discovered. Herbal practitioners had their rights to dispense their medications taken away and then reinstated. The British Herbal Medicine Association was founded and produced the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. People began to express the concern over the large number of side effects and environmental impact of the drugs of the 1950s.

2000 A.D.– EU took action on regulation and testing of herbal medicines similar to those used for pharmaceuticals.

Herbal medicines have been documented for almost 4000 years. These medicines have survived real world testing and thousands of years of human testing. Some medicines have been discontinued due to their toxicity, while others have been modified or combined with additional herbs to offset side effects. Many herbs have undergone changes in their uses. Studies conducted on the herbs and their effects keep changing their potential uses.

Herbal Medicine Today

Herbal medicines are still in use today. In some respects they have gained a new momentum in the medical field. As many people seek alternative treatments and begin to check out traditional, and Eastern, medicine, herbs are becoming more popular. As physicians seek new treatments for many common illnesses they are beginning to revisit the traditional remedies, using herbal medicines.

Pharmaceutical medications, with their potential for harmful side effects and addiction, are becoming less popular. People are seeking alternatives to the modern medical interventions. Improving, and maintaining, health naturally is a very popular approach to overall wellness.

The herbs used today are generally cultivated for those purposes. Very few herbs are harvested from the wild, with the exception of a few still found in the rainforests and higher elevations. The cultivation of herbs for medicinal uses is a large field and more people are beginning to plant their own herb gardens. Many monasteries continue to grow large herbal gardens within their walls.

Elderly people also metabolize medications differently, and generally are on more medications, and therefore must also exercise caution when trying new herbal treatments. Underlying ailments that may affect the body’s ability to process or absorb medications are also an issue.

The history of herbal medicine has been both long and colorful. From the early Chinese Empires to modern physicians’ offices, herbal medicines have continued to be a part of the medical field. Herbal treatments have matured throughout history, along with the methods of delivering them. In the beginning, the herbs were used in a hit or miss method and required major events to change their use. Research and clinical trials have helped to shape the field of medicine, and the future for herbal medicine looks bright.

Thordur Sturluson
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Thordur Sturluson

A biologist, zoologist, scuba-diver, blogger and aspiring herbalist with interest in nature conservation, animal protection, herbal medicine and medicinal plants.
Thordur Sturluson
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