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Complementary Healthcare Information Service - UK

Herbal medicine

 

What is it?

As a form of treatment that is said to be as old as mankind itself, it is interesting to notice that this most ancient form of medicine is coming back to challenge the most sophisticated system of medicine in the world's history. Today, the World Health Organisation estimates that, worldwide, herbal medicine is three to four times more commonly practised than conventional medicine.

It can be said that the origins of modern medicine, with its heavy reliance on drug prescription to treat specific diseases, lie in herbal medicine. Some of the best modern drugs are purified products of herbs, and in worldwide use.

Primitive tribes still use their traditional knowledge of plants and their healing properties and, in early civilisations, food and medicine were closely linked together, as many plants were eaten for their health-giving properties.

Much of Britain's knowledge about the use of herbs can be traced back to ancient Egypt where the priests kept that knowledge. A papyrus from the city of Thebes dating back from1500 BC lists hundreds of medicinal herbs, including many that are still in use today.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also were practitioner of herbal medicine and much of their knowledge has been passed on as their armies conquered the world and military doctors took the plants and their uses with them. Two more cultures which have always relied very heavily on herbal medicine are the Chinese and the Indians and, to this day, China herbs play a vital part in health care.

In Britain, from the Dark Ages well into medieval times, herbals were painstakingly hand-copied in the monasteries, each of which had its own physic garden for growing herbs to treat both monks and local people. In rural areas, particularly in the west and Wales, the Druids are believed to have had an oral tradition of herbal medicine, mixing medicine with mysticism and rituals.

The crucial difference between medical herbalists and today's orthodox doctor is, firstly, that the herbalist looks at the patient as a whole, while conventional doctors look for symptoms which enable them to diagnose and treat diseases. They see the person as the carrier of a disease, whilst the herbalist regards the patient as a diseased person, requiring a holistic treatment. Secondly, the medical herbalist is using whole plants or plant products containing active constituents, while doctors use these constituents in refined and isolated forms or synthetics.

As medical herbalists have become more scientifically minded in their research, so a new word has been coined to described their work: phytotherapy, from the Greek words phyton, meaning 'plant', and therapeuein, 'to take care of, to heal'.

A medical herbalist will treat the patient as an individual , with individual weaknesses and needs. He/She is likely to enquire about lifestyle, diet, stresses and look for any imbalance and disharmony, seeking the cause of the illness. Each treatment is tailored to specific and varying requirements.

 

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