From Academic Kids

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Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, c. 1334 copy in Arabic, describes medicinal features of cumin and dill.

The term Herbalism refers to folk and traditional medicinal practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as phytotherapy.

The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among native peoples. A number of traditions have come to dominate the practise of herbal medicine in the west at the end of the twentieth century:-

Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to Western physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including (among many others) opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine. While purification and quantification of these plant extracts makes them more predictable, and chemical processing can sometimes modify their effects in desirable ways, herbal remedies tend to have a more complex and subtle mix of chemicals, and can sometimes offer access to drugs, or combinations of drugs, that the pharmaceutical industry has not yet exploited.

As of 2004, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is starting to fund clinical trials into the effectivness of herbal medicine; see the links at the National Institutes of Health Herbal Medicine Links Page (http://health.nih.gov/result.asp/324).



A survey released in May 2004 (http://nccam.nih.gov/news/2004/052704.htm) by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine focused on who used complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), what was used, and why it was used. The survey was limited to adults age 18 years and over during 2002 living in the United States. According to this recent survey, herbal therapy, or use of natural products other than vitamins and minerals, was the most commonly used CAM therapy (18.9%) ([1] (http://nccam.nih.gov/news/report.pdf) table 1 on page 8) when all use of prayer was excluded.

Biological Background

All plants produce chemical compounds as part of their normal metabolic activities. These can be split into two broad categories - primary metabolites, which include sugars, fats, and amino acids, and secondary metabolites, which are much more specialised substances with a wide variety of functions in the organisms that make them. Primary metabolites are found in all plants, but secondary ones in a much narrower range - some only in a particular genus or species. The functions of secondary metabolites are extremely varied, with some functioning as toxins, some to attract insects, and some with more esoteric functions. It is these secondary metabolites which can have therapeutic actions in humans, and which can be refined to produce drugs - inulin from the roots of dahlias, quinine from the cinchona, morphine and codeine from the poppy, and digoxin from the foxglove are all examples.


Examples of some commonly used herbal medicines:-

  • Echinacea extracts have been shown to limit the length of colds in some clinical trials [2] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15035888).
  • St John's wort has been found to be more effective than placebo for the treatment of mild to moderate depression in some clinical trials [3] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12904978).
  • Garlic has been found to lower total cholesterol levels, mildly reduce blood pressure, reduces platelet aggregation, and has antibacterial properties. [4] (http://www.mcphs.edu/herbal/garlic/garlic.cis.pdf)
  • Artichoke and several other plants have been associated with reduced total serum cholesterol levels in preliminary studies [5] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12791229).
  • Black cohosh and other plants that contain phytoestrogens (plant molecules with estrogen activity) have been found to have some benefits for treatment of symptoms resulting from menopause [6] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12435217).

See Also: herb, herbology; alternative medicine, anesthesia, chinese medicine, complementary medicine, ethnobotany, folk medicine, folk remedy, paganism, shamanism, welfare plant, History of alternative medicine

In pop culture

'Herblore' is a skill in the MMORPG RuneScape, which mainly involves the player combining various type of herbs found in the game into various potions. 'Herbalism', in the MMORPG World of Warcraft allows the player to collect plants for use as reagents for the skill 'Alchemy'.

Misconceptions and dangers of herbalism

A common misconception about herbalism and the use of 'natural' products in general, is that 'natural' equals safe. Nature however is not benign and many plants have chemical defence mechanisms against predators that can have adverse effects on humans. Examples are hemlock and nightshade, which can be deadly to humans. Every year in Russia many people die when they gather mushrooms from nature and mistake poisonous varieties for edible ones. Herbs can also have undesirable side-effects just as pharmaceutical products can, sometimes even more so because dosage and purity are harder to control.

Cases are known where manufacturers of herbal remedies and even herbal teas have accidentally used the wrong herbs, which they imported from China. In Chinese, names of some dangerous and useful herbs sound very much alike, making it easy to make a mistake. In Belgium, in a TCM-remedy for losing weight, a harmless herb was accidentally swapped for one causing extensive kidney damage to hundreds of women. The two herbs were pronounced almost the same. Another example is an herb used for teas called starmint that comes in two varieties. One is harmless, the other causes elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate. The two are kept apart by a different suffix of their Latin names, but cases are known of manufacturers forgetting to mention that suffix when placing an order and subsequently receiving and using the harmful variety.

Sometimes herbal remedies are adulterated with dangerous pharmaceutical products, which should only be prescribed by doctors. An American doctor once used an herbal remedy while in China, which did wonders for his cold. He brought it back with him to the USA, where it was found the remedy contained cocaine. While cocaine is made from a plant and could be called a herbal remedy, it is not what most people would consider part of herbalism. Ayurvedic herbal products often contain levels of heavy metals considered unsafe, since heavy metals are considered to have therapeutical benefits in Ayurvedic medicine.

If herbal remedies are used together with prescription (pharmaceutical) remedies, one should consult with a doctor. While the use of either product alone can be safe, the combination may be dangerous. For instance, taking an herbal remedy that lowers blood pressure together with prescription medicine that does the same may lead to a dangerously low blood pressure.

External links

eo:Kuracplanto fr:Plante médicinale pt:Planta medicinal lb:Phytotherapie


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