Herbalism is defined as âa traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts’. Since prehistoric times and until relatively recently, people in almost every culture and corner of the world had an intimate relationship with the plants that grew in their region, knowing which were good to eat, which were poisonous, and which could be used to treat illnesses.
The origins of herbalism and herbal medicine lie deep within our ancestral past and have more to do with mysticism, ritual and magic as with our health and wellbeing. Many plants and fungi have quite powerful psychoactive properties, and hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms have been used by many cultures for religious ceremonies and healing rituals.
As thorough and impressive as folk knowledge of plants and their uses for healing and other reasons was (and in a few now very rare cases such as some tribes in Papua New Guinea, is) we must remember how little they really knew and understood about human anatomy, pathology and diseases in general. Indeed, we must remember that medicine is a very recent science.
For example, as late as the 1850s, it was believed by all medical authorities that diseases such as cholera and typhoid were spread by âmiasmas’ â in other words unhealthy airs. A London physician called John Snow discovered the truth (that water contaminated with sewage was to blame) with a brilliant piece of detective work. He noticed that all the cases in a cholera outbreak occurred around one well in Soho. When he took the well out of commission, the epidemic cleared up. It was found that a leak had contaminated the well with sewage.
These days of course we not only have a thorough understanding of human anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, an almost complete understanding of pathology thanks to the germ-theory of disease and surgical procedures and techniques of breathtaking ingenuity, we also have an incredibly advanced chemistry that allows us to synthesise potential medicines.
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Despite all that we can do, and the exciting potential of new research, it seems that our most simple and primitive attempts at medicine still have something to offer us. Our knowledge of botany and plant chemistry allows us to accurately examine the claims that herbalists have been making for centuries, and even allows us to isolate and examine specific plant compounds for research in new areas.
The scope and efficiency of modern medicine means that â at least in the West â herbal remedies are used for the most part as dietary supplements. Few people now would rely solely on plants when they were ill; the main purpose of herbal medicine is to keep one’s body and mind in good shape, largely to avoid illnesses and reduce their symptoms when they arise.
Of course many common ailments can be treated just as effectively, and in some cases more effectively, with herbal remedies as with synthesised medicines, but what is truly exciting is the scope for new research into plants and their medicinal applications. Plants have been quietly evolving for hundreds of millions of years and have produced a truly astounding array of chemicals, to build their stems leaves and flowers, to defend themselves from being eaten and more. Our ability to identify potentially medicinally useful chemicals, test them against diseases and then synthesise them in bulk offers us great potential in the fight against currently incurable diseases, and for this reason herbs are as important to our health now as they ever were.
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