19 Dec 2022

What is herbalism?

author Ashley Owen
Herbalism is an ancient approach to medicine that has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years. Yet for newcomers, it can be a somewhat mystical and confusing field to navigate. So what is herbalism exactly, and is it a safe and effective way to improve our health and wellbeing?

What is herbalism?

Herbalism, also referred to as herbal medicine and phytotherapy, is essentially the therapeutic and medicinal use of plants. It uses herbs to treat different ailments, boost wellbeing, and keep the body in a state of good health.

There are several forms of herbalism, however they tend to all agree on certain key principles. The most obvious of these is that they view plants as effective remedies for various ills. People use herbalism to treat all kinds of different concerns. These range from physical ailments such as nausea and skin disorders to mental health issues such as anxiety and stress. Beyond that, there is also a focus on using herbs to prevent diseases from arising in the first place.(1)

In addition, herbalism commonly takes a more holistic view of health than modern pharmaceutical medicine does. This means that practitioners consider the person they’re treating as a whole, rather than just focusing on one symptom. That might involve looking at not only the physical body, but also someone’s environment, lifestyle, mental health, and so on.

Herbalism emphasises the importance of finding and treating the underlying cause of the issue in question – not just the symptoms. To illustrate the difference, consider depression. An antidepressant might help to alleviate the symptoms of the condition, but in many cases won’t treat the root cause.(2) A treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy, on the other hand, focuses on addressing the reason behind the depression.

Ultimately, herbalism is about harnessing the power of nature to improve our health in a multitude of different ways – just as our ancestors did.

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The history of herbalism

Although herbalism has gained increased attention in recent years, it’s actually one of the oldest forms of medicine there is. Evidence indicates that Neanderthals may have been self-medicating with plants such as chamomile as much as 50,000 years ago.(3)

One of the longest and oldest preserved medical documents in the world is the Ebers Papyrus from Ancient Egypt. Experts believe the text dates back to approximately 1500BC.(4) It details the herbal remedies people used at that time, and for what type of maladies.

Ancient Greeks and Romans also recognised the value of herbal medicines, and employed a wide range of such remedies. For example, the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical texts from around 500-300BC, mentions hundreds of different herbal drugs.(5) These include some plants that herbalists still recommend today, such as garlic, elderberry and St John’s wort.

The Middle Ages saw several key herbal texts published in English. Among them were The Grete Herball (The Great Herbal) in 1526 and The Complete Herbal in the 1600s. These also reference herbs we still use today, like lavender and mint, although the methods and purposes often differ.

At first, the development of pharmacology and modern medicine resulted in herbalism being dismissed as unscientific by many doctors. However, more recently, interest in what we think of as alternative and complementary medicine has increased again. For example, here in the UK, a 2008 survey found 35% of respondents had taken some form of herbal medicine.(5)

It’s possible to trace a link all the way from these ancient traditions of herbalism to the modern forms that exist today. Although many of the specifics have changed, the underlying notion of using plants as medicine remains the same.

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Herbalism around the world

As mentioned above, there are a few different varieties of herbalism practised around the globe. This includes traditions passed down in Native American communities, indigenous groups in Africa, and Aboriginal societies in Australia.

Modern forms of herbalism, such as evolutionary herbalism, also differ in their approaches. For instance, some emphasise the science of herbalism, while others focus more on its spiritual aspects. Further, many proponents of Western herbalism aim to combine the practice with conventional medicine.

Two influential and well-known medicine systems that incorporate herbalism are traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayurvedic medicine (AYM). In addition to remaining popular in their home countries, these practices are also enjoying increased interest overseas.(7)

There are many possible reasons for herbalism’s boom in popularity. For example, the growth of the wellness industry has prompted a greater interest in health, wellbeing and longevity. Whatever the reason is for your curiosity on the subject, we’re going to try and answer some of the key questions you might have.

What are herbal remedies?

In essence, herbal remedies are simply extracts taken from plants. Experts believe that over 50,000 different species of plant are used in herbal medicine around the world.(7) And these remedies can come from any part of the plant. That includes flowers, seeds, berries and leaves, all the way down to the bark and roots.

Herbal remedies tend to differ from conventional pharmaceutical drugs in that they make use of the whole plant. This means they don’t isolate just one specific active ingredient. The idea behind this is that the various compounds within plants can work together synergistically for a more beneficial effect.(8)

Although herbalism often has an aura of mysticism, certain aspects of it are actually quite commonplace these days. In fact, chances are you’ve used some form of herbal remedy before. Ever spritzed lavender water on your pillow to help you sleep? Drank peppermint tea after a meal to aid digestion? You can consider both of these as forms of herbalism in action.

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How do you take herbal remedies?

In herbalism, the extracts you use are usually more concentrated than the actual parts of the plant themselves. This means that they’re more potent, so you don’t have to take as much.

They come in many different forms, including teas, powders, tinctures and oils. The style you choose will impact how you use the remedy. For instance, teas are for drinking, whereas you can apply oils directly to your skin or use them in food.

The other factor that will influence how you use herbal remedies is the reason that you’re taking them. Let’s consider poppy seed oil as an example. If your goal for using it is smoother skin, then you’ll want to apply it directly on your face. Conversely, if you’re interested in boosting your heart and brain health, you could mix it into a salad dressing.

This illustrates another key point about herbal remedies: many of them have more than one benefit to offer. For instance, people traditionally use activated charcoal powder as a digestive aid, but it also helps to whiten your teeth. Likewise, a sea buckthorn shot can support both your immune system and the health of your eyes.

Another practice that’s common in herbalism is taking several herbs at the same time. Herbalists will often recommend a unique combination based on a person’s symptoms, lifestyle, and similar factors. The purpose of this might be to improve efficacy, tackle numerous symptoms at once, or avoid adverse side effects.(9) However, you don’t have to take multiple herbs at once – especially if you’re self-medicating with products available over the counter.

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How does herbalism relate to modern medicine?

People often think of herbalism and modern medicine as diametrically opposed to one another; however, this isn't entirely accurate. In fact, many pharmaceutical drugs on the market today originate from plant sources.

For example, morphine famously comes from the opium poppy, while aspirin is extracted from the bark of the willow tree.(10) The difference is that now scientists create many of these active ingredients synthetically and in isolation. Even so, the natural world continues to be a source of inspiration for researchers in the medical field.

It’s also possible to use herbalism alongside conventional medicine. The only caveat to this is that you should check with your doctor first. That’s because some herbal remedies, like St John’s wort, can interact with pharmaceutical drugs and potentially cause adverse reactions.(11)


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