Herbal Medicine Explained

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Any plant that is grown for culinary, medicinal, or in some cases even spiritual value is called a herb. It is common practice that only the green and leafy parts of herbs are used. Culinary usages are obviously quite different from the medicinal applications. In fact, it is often the case that the properties of a herb can be entirely different depending on whether it is intended for culinary or medicinal usage. Furthermore, medicinal herbs usually tend to be shrubs or woody plants. Culinary herbs on the other hand are typically more leafy and soft.

Interestingly, the seeds, berries, bark, root, or other parts of a herbal plant make great spices. These plants also bear edible fruits or vegetables.

Culinary herbs are different from other vegetables in the sense that they are not the primary objects to be cooked or consumed. Instead, they are used to provide flavour when used as spices.

Botanical definitions

Botanical science defines a herb as a plant that does not produce a woody stem. It usually dies in temperate climates. Death can be complete in case of annual herbs or the herb can simply go back to its roots in case of perennial herbs.

The botanical term herbaceous means a plant having the characteristic of a herb or being leaf-like in colour and texture.


Herbalism is also known as phytotherapy. It is a very old folk medicine tradition that is based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Human beings have been looking for healing powers in the vegetable kingdom for as long as our species has been walking on two legs. There are innumerable types of indigenous plants that have been used by people for countless centuries in the treatment of many ailments. The history of such usage is long and well documented. Evidence has been found that sixty thousand years ago the Neanderthals living in what is now present day Iraq used plants as medicines.

Radiocarbon dating of the Lascaux caves in France has revealed that cave paintings dated between 25,000 – 13,000 BCE display the use of plants as healing agents.

It must be appreciated that our forefathers spent tens of thousands of years slowly building upon the knowledge of their own predecessors to arrive at reliable and repeatable conclusions.  It took countless generations of trial and error to explore and expand this priceless knowledge base of how to use the naturally occurring plants and vegetables that grew around them.

An interesting aspect of plants is their seemingly infinite ability to synthesize aromatic substances like phenols and tannins. Plants also evolved alkaloids that serve as defense mechanisms against predatory micro-organisms, insects, and herbivores. Plants and chemicals have a strong relationship that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The chemical interactions in a plant’s metabolism, offense, and defense procedures are fascinatingly complex. Human beings have also found that many herbs and spices that are used to season food often yielded useful medical compounds.

In recent years plants have once again come into the foreground as the search for new drugs and dietary supplements have led researchers back into the plant kingdom. Pharmacologists, microbiologists, botanists and natural product chemists are literally going through the entire roster of plant species with a fine toothed comb looking for phytochemicals that could lead to the development of cures for many types of disease. There are already many drugs on the market that have been derived from plants.

Herbal treatment of diseases is nearly universal in all non-industrialized societies. Since they do not have the resources to set up pharmaceutical industries and are quite likely to be too impoverished to purchase modern day drugs, it should not be surprising that they rely on locally grown plants and herbs to fight off illness.

Some very common plant-based pharmaceuticals that have been widely prescribed by western physicians include such well-known names as opium, aspirin, digitalis and quinine.


In any living organism, chemical reactions define the metabolic rate and control normal metabolic activities. Some of these chemicals are known as primary metabolites (sugar and fat) and are found in nearly all plants. Chemicals known as secondary metabolites are found in a limited number of plants. The functions of secondary metabolites can be very different. They could be used to produce alkaloids (poisons) for defense or to attract insects to enhance pollination.

Most of the therapeutic chemicals derived from plants as well as plant-based modern drugs rely on the secondary metabolite chemicals in plants. A few examples are: inulin (roots of the plant dahlias), quinine (from cinchona), morphine and codeine (from poppy), and digoxin (from foxglove).

As an encouraging sign of the times, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is funding clinical trials to improve the medical world’s understanding of herbal medicine.


In May 2004, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine conducted a survey. The focus of this survey was on people who had used Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM), the particular types of treatments used and why the people chose the complementary medicine option.

The results of this survey indicated that herbal therapy (or the use of natural products besides vitamins and minerals) was the highest used complementary and alternative medicine. Here are a few examples of medicines used in herbal therapy.

  • A variety of plants (including artichoke) helps to reduce the total serum cholesterol levels.
  • Plants like black cohosh (and others that contain phytoestrogens or active estrogen) have proven effective in treating the symptoms of menopause
  • A number of studies have reported that the average length of the common cold can be reduced by using echinacea extracts.
  • Garlic is a herb that provides multiple benefits such as lowering cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure and reducing platelet aggregation.
  • Another highly diverse medicinal plant is black cumin (nigella sativa). Common ailments that can be cured using black cumin include: cough, pulmonary infections, asthma, influenza, allergy, hypertension, and stomach ache. The seeds of black cumin are classified as carminative, stimulant, diuretic, and galactogogue. Seed powder or oil from black cumin can be applied externally in case of skin eruptions.

Digestive tract problems, including irritable bowel syndrome and nausea, can be relieved by drinking peppermint tea.

  • Rauvolfa serpentina is one of the oldest and most widely used herbs in India. It is applied for treating problems like insomnia, anxiety, and hypertension. This herb is also the foundation for the first plant based allopathic drug that was developed to combat high blood pressure.
  • In some clinical trials it has been discovered that St. John’s Wort can be highly effective in cases of mild to moderate depression
  • Another plant root that can be used in the treatment of sleeplessness is valerian.


All modern pharmaceutical drugs need to be prescribed due to the inherent dangers of side effects or allergic reactions, or possible reactions with other drugs.  This has resulted in the development of a myth about natural products, including herbalism, that has spread far and wide. The myth goes that all natural products are safe. Or, in other words, anyone can take them without consulting an expert and they will do no harm.

In the end, whatever we extract from plants, spices or curative agents, we are dealing with chemicals. They might be naturally occurring but they`re still chemical agents. Over centuries the defense system of plants has led them to produce some particularly lethal chemicals. There are plenty of innocent-looking plants that can give an adult nausea if a single leaf is smelled closely. A small nibble of the same leaf by an infant can be fatal.

Fortunately, most of these plants are found deep in the forests where predators other than man are a threat. Still, there are milder forms of toxins in plants that grow much closer to us and even these can be lethal if we fail to exercise the requisite caution. For example, hemlock and nightshade are two plants that can prove fatal through carelessness.

Also to be remembered is the fact that plants or herbal remedies are as likely to cause side effects and allergic reactions as other pharmaceutical drugs. However, these problems usually result from improper dosage and impurities.

Another danger can be found in taking herbal remedies alongside conventional drugs when both perform the same task. In that case the cumulative effect will surely increase the risk of an overdose.


Scientific studies provide indisputable evidence that the herbals extracts from plants can not only cure but also prevent certain types of diseases. Further evidence of the benefits of herbal medicine can be found in the fact that there are many modern pharmaceutical drugs available that use plant extracts.

The need for caution comes in when reading the advertisements and other marketing materials for alternative medicines, even if they are plant based, 100% natural and completely safe. There are no products on the market that will advertise boldly that they might not be effective in some cases. That sort of statement is usually hidden in the small print. There are cases where scientific studies have shown that some individuals receive none of the medical benefits that the product claims to deliver. There are many alternative medicines on the market that have not undergone any sort of testing whatsoever.

The importance of scientific testing becomes apparent when you consider that these old-age natural therapy concepts were developed when there were no scientific controls and no test procedures. If someone wanted to try out a new herb, the easiest way for to try it on themselves first. Secondly, the human mind was not as well understood as it is today. For example, modern controls can easily make out the difference between a placebo effect, the body’s ability to heal itself through its immune system, and the actual practical benefits of herbs.

Without this understanding any herb, whether beneficial or not, can be made to look like a life saver.

Scientific investigation also helps to reveal the precise nature and structure of the chemicals in an individual herb. The precise role of each chemical or chemical compound within the herb. How they react with blood and other internal organs. How each chemical combines with other elements to produce specific compounds – finally resulting in a cure or relief. These are important facets of scientific testing that were not available in the days when herbal traditions were being established. Most knowledge in those days was anecdotal and based on personal experience. Humanity and especially the medical profession know better today.

It is always prudent to choose a medical treatment that has been proven safe and effective. It is possible for people to become so influenced by the natural healing movement that they abandon conventional medicine altogether. Avoid falling into this trap. Herbal therapies have just begun to be studied scientifically and until proven safe and sound should only be used as complementary, alternative medicines and not the main treatment.


Different countries allot different legal status to different herbal ingredients. For example, Ayurveda, the alternative medicine therapy from India, believes that heavy metals are therapeutic. The United States however believes that high levels of heavy metals are actually unsafe for normal consumption. So Ayurvedic medicines are not granted the same status as regular drugs and they are certainly not FDA approved.

Like other non-FDA-approved health products, Ayurvedic drugs are sold in the United States as dietary supplements and not medicines. This is merely an evasion because as per American laws, supplements do not need to be tested for safety or effectiveness. In some cases even quality control of the active ingredients can be inadequate.


If you intend to use herbal remedies then it is always advisable to start with a detailed and frank discussion with your doctor. Keep in mind that herbal remedies can cause adverse reactions just like conventional drugs. This risk is augmented when herbal remedies are taken in combination with prescription or over the counter drugs. For example, if you are taking medication for hypertension (these medicines lower blood pressure) and at the same time you take a herbal supplement with the same affect, there is a very high risk possibility of blood pressure dropping dangerously.

There are also many supplements available that might contain herbs, which are to be strictly avoided during pregnancy.

Chapter 5 Chinese Herbal Medicine


Herbology is the name given to the Chinese method of combining medicinal herbs. In this technique, which is one of the most widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), every herbal medicine is actually a cocktail of several herbs that are customized to individual patients. The doctor will assess the yin/yang condition of a patient in addition to studying the symptoms of the ailment.

The preparation of the medicine begins with the use of or two main herbs that target the ailment. The other herbs are added in order to adjust the yin/yang condition. Other ingredients can be added to cancel out toxicity or side effects resulting from the main herbs.

This sort of herbal mixing to arrive at a formula that is suitable to individual needs is not easy. A lot of experience and tutelage is required before practising traditional Chinese medicine and performing the herbal mixing independently.

An important difference between traditional Chinese medicine and modern drugs is that the balance and chemical interaction of the ingredients within a given formula is considered more important than the individual ingredients.

Another quirk in Chinese herbology is that while it may be called herbology it will use all parts of a plant including: leaf, stem, flower, root. In fact, some remedies will also use ingredients derived from animals and minerals. This has caused a great deal of controversy because sometimes traditional Chinese medicine can call for ingredients from animals that have been declared as endangered species (seahorses, rhinoceros, tigers, etc.).

Shennong is usually considered to be the first Chinese herbalist. It is said that Shennong tasted hundreds of herbs and experimented with them before passing on his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the farmers of China. He also wrote the first Chinese manual on pharmacology: the Shennong Bencao Jing. This manual lists approximately 365 medicines out of which 252 are herbal. The manual is dated around the 1st century Han dynasty.

One of the most important of such documents that were written by several master practitioners of Chinese herbology is the Bencao Gangmu. It was put together by Li Shizhen during the Ming dynasty. The contents of Bencao Gangmu are so influential that even today they are used for consultation and reference.

Classification of Chinese herbs is in itself a very complex and intricate process. Very broadly speaking, Chinese herbs are classified using methods such as those described below.

The Four Natures

The four natures are essentially a description of the yin and yang states and how effective a herbal medication is in bringing them into balance. Yin and yang degrees can range from cold (extreme yin), cool, neutral (warm), or hot (extreme yang). Before selecting herbs the doctor will make a careful study of the yin/yang balance in a patient. So if the patient has “internal cold” then a herb that has a “hot” yang value will be used to balance the system and so on.

The Five Tastes

Some herbs are identified by their taste. While the taste in itself has no medicinal value, in the absence of a better yardstick Chinese medicine associates the taste associated with an herb to the final effect. These five tastes are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Each taste has its own function. Pungent herbs are used to increase sweating, vitalizing blood and the life force or Qi. Sweet herbs are used to tone and harmonize body systems. Other sweet herbs help in curing excessive dampness by way of diuresis. Sour taste is meant to be astringent. Bitter tasting herbs help the body get rid of excess heat, empty the bowels, and reduce dampness by causing dryness.  Salty herbs can help to soften up hard masses.

The Meridians

Meridians do not have anything to do with the Earth’s meridians or magnetism. What they refer to is the precise organ that the chemicals in a herb are intended to target. So menthol, which is pungent and cool, is associated with lungs and liver. This means that since lungs are the organs that protect the body from cold and influenza the use of menthol can help to get rid of coldness in the lungs and also resist heat toxins.

One of the oldest cultures that carried out a thorough study of herbs and other plant life related to human health was based in ancient China. Chinese Herbal Medicine, also referred to as CHM, went through many evolutions, as the knowledge grew more and more refined. Remember that the nature of illnesses that have afflicted humanity has changed over time. Over the thousands of years that CHM was, so to speak, in development, the nature of these afflictions changed and CHM had to change its mode of thinking and conduct more research to combat new invasions of the human body. Chinese hospitals use all the advantages offered by modern medicinal research and techniques while at the same time they rely on their ancient system of CHM to treat many diseases and disorders.

Chinese Herbal Medicine claims that it can cure any kind of disease. This claim is good when you consider that CHM takes the preventative approach rather than the curative one. CHM first tries to make sure that no disease can affect the body and, in case it does, early detection makes preventative cures possible. However, even Chinese Herbal Medicine can do little against a problem like third-stage cancer.

After pharmaceutical drugs, a majority of the world population uses Chinese Herbal Medicine as a first alternative. CHM also produces fewer side effects when compared to mainstream pharmaceutical drugs.

The duration of treatment using CHM depends on the type of disease and its severity. Therefore, there is no predefined period of treatment. It can be customized to be shorter or longer as needed.

Some common ailments that can be treated with the help of CHM are allergies, digestion problems, problems resulting from respiratory tract complications, immune system disorders, many types of pains (internal and external), psychological disorders and fallout problems, most diseases that afflict children and infants, an assortment of gynecological complications.

There is no particular age limit applicable to the use of Chinese Herbal Medicine. Nor is there any restriction based on personal constitutions. However, like any form of treatment, it is best to know of existing symptoms and previous medical history (especially relating to medicinal conflicts and reactions, or allergies) that need due consideration before even a dose of CHM is prescribed. Other than that, there is no problem in prescribing Chinese Herbal Medicine to pregnant women or women who are breast-feeding. Of course, a lot depends on what is being prescribed.

Chinese Herbal Medicines are available in different forms and there is the choice between traditional CHM and the modernized versions. Some people find it difficult to adjust to the peculiar taste of CHM but just keep at it and it will soon become acceptable.

There is no standard pricing scheme for CHM and so you might have to look around to find the best price. Also, note that recently insurance companies have started covering herbal treatment. So if you are into herbal medicines and have yet to take out an insurance policy you might want to investigate this possibility with your insurance provider.

One way Chinese Herbal Medicine does its magic is by removing excess toxins from the body. This is done in many ways. One method is the colonic dialysis therapy. This therapy is especially effective with people who are trying to overcome addictions. While the human body gathers toxins from all sorts of sources on a daily basis, addictions result in rapid toxin build up in a very short time. What is worse, depending on the type of addiction, natural toxin excretion from the body is inhibited. Colonic dialysis therapy overcomes these inhibitions and provides a quick exit route for the accumulated toxins. For people who are blessed enough to escape addictions the natural toxin release mechanism is given a boost by colonic dialysis therapy.

Currently the PLA Institute of Drug Dependence Treatment and Rehabilitation is busy doing earnest research to study how colonic dialysis therapy can help people who have been long-term addicts of heroin. The primary focus of this research is to determine whether colonic dialysis therapy helps these people to abstain from heroin and whether it can reduce craving and the resulting withdrawal symptoms.

The doctors of the Royal Free Hospital, London, carried out another scientific study of Chinese Herbal Medicine. In this study, Chinese remedies were evaluated for the help they might offer to dermatitis patients. About ten different types of herbs were mixed together to create the “cure” that was being tested. This mixture was then given to forty adult patients who had a long medical history of coping with atopic dermatitis (commonly known as eczema). The evaluation period lasted for five months. During an eight-week period in this study, patients were randomly given either the mixture that was being tested or a placebo that tasted and looked just the same. This is normally done so that patient responses can be monitored under blind circumstances. Out of the forty patients, thirty-one stayed through the entire course of the study and they all displayed continuous and rapid improvement in erythema (redness of skin caused by eczema). Obviously, the study concluded that Chinese Herbal Medicine was an effective remedy for adult atopic dermatitis.

Different Types of Herbal Medicine

Some common forms of herbal medicines are:

  • Essence. You have probably come across the line “essence of …” followed by some plant or flower when reading an ad for a cosmetic product. While Essences tend to get associated with cosmetic products due to massive advertising, certain essential oils are always available for therapeutic purposes. The popularity of essential herbal oils processed through cold pressing or steam distillation is probably due to the fact that many people prefer to get a massage rather than swallowing a pill. The most common benefit of essential oils is the help they provide in relaxing. They do not really cure any problems. Their major effect is to provide relief.
  • Body massages can release toxins in the muscles, aiding relaxation.
  • Head massages can likewise reduce heaviness or, in some cases, cure headaches. Similarly, chest massages using essence of certain herbs can help with congestion resulting from common cold.
  • Pills or capsules. There was a time when this alternative was not available. It was a dark time for people who could not stand the taste of raw herbal medicines. The pills and capsules were a godsend for people who wanted to try herbal remedies but were unable to swallow. In order to convert a herb to pill form it first needs to be dried and crushed into powder. What is of interest is that there are hardly any herbal medicines available in pill or capsule form that target specific ailments. They act more like secondary medications to provide moral support to whatever primary medication is being taken. Professionals in herbal medicine believe that the drying and crushing of the herbs robs them of their potency. Others suggest that herbal medicine should be taken in its raw form for complete effectiveness. Anyway, if you are looking for specific herbal medicines instead of general health enhancers and supplements then this option is not for you.
  • Infusions. The most popular form of herbal infusion is the drinking of various kinds of tea. Infusion involves the use of the delicate parts (leaves, seeds, and fruits) of a herbal plant and are quick to administer. Some ingredients of infusion tea could be stinging nettle, oat straw, red clover, raspberry leaf, and comfrey leaf. Infusions can be just the tea you drink normally (but using herbs instead of tealeaves) or what is known as Medicinal Strength Tea. Most herbal teas fall into this category though the preparation is slightly different. There are several recipes available on the Internet for making Medicinal Strength Tea.
  • Poultice. For injuries, inflammations, cramps, or other spasmodic problems it can become necessary to apply the herbal mixture as a poultice. The required herbs are first macerated or chopped into small pieces. These are then applied directly to the affected area and covered with a hot and moist bandage. In some cases, the herbal mixture can be applied as a layer to the moist bandage before wrapping it around the affected area.
  • Raw. As the name suggests, in this case the herbal medicine is taken in its most natural form without any additives or changes to make it palatable. Most people will run a mile in tight shoes to avoid this form of medication. It is the equivalent of taking a regular capsule, pulling it open, taking that powder, putting it on the tongue and trying to suck on it as if it were chocolate. Not done, well at least not if the taste buds are functioning normally. No wonder this method in unpopular. The good news is that most of the herbs that need to be taken raw can alternatively be soaked (or passed through) water to make medicinal strength teas, and those are much easier on sensitive palates. It is also believed that teas increase the effectiveness of raw herbs,
  • Tinctures. There are very few kids who get exposed to this form of medicine these days but about twenty odd years ago no kid that got into a scrap in the field escaped the terror of tincture. These are basically herbal medicines in a liquid form. They can be for external as well as internal use. Modern incarnations are a lot milder that their older forms.
  • Decoctions. A decoction is a liquid preparation made by boiling a medicinal plant with water usually in the proportion of 5 parts of the drug to 100 parts of water. Typically, certain specific parts of a plant like berries, roots, and herb-bark are used in this process. Depending on the consistency of the plant part being used, it can take up to two hours to prepare a decoction. This process extracts the flavour and increases the concentration of the herb through the process of boiling.

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