Benefits of herbs in medicine? What do aspirin, Atropine (used to treat irregular heartbeat), Digoxin (the most widely prescribed heart medication) and Ephedrine (used to widen or relax the airways) all have in common? They all have botanical origins.
Today, about 40% of our prescription medicines come from plant extracts or synthesized plant compounds. Extraordinary? Not really. Since earliest times, people have gathered these substances to create herbal medicines to treat certain diseases. Many of the powerful drugs used in modern medicines originated in plants. Today’s plant-based drugs treat a range of diseases, from headaches to cancer, malaria to diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, asthma and angina. The list is extensive.
Herbal medicine — also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine — refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside conventional medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine in treating and preventing disease.
It is estimated by the World Health Organization that approximately 75-80% of the world’s population uses plant medicines either in part or entirely. Growing numbers of American health care consumers are turning to plant medicines for many reasons – low cost and seeking natural alternatives with fewer side effects are commonly cited.
What is the history of herbal medicine?
Plants have been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 BC. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of drugs. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.
How do herbs work?
In many cases, scientists aren’t sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and they may work together to produce a beneficial effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect it, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.
Is there anything I should watch out for?
Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions, and in some cases, may have fewer side effects than some conventional medications. It is important to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal medicines.
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