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The History of Herbal Medicine


Historians often say that "History is written by the Winners", this is also true in herbal medicine. Almost every culture from the ancient Egyptians to the native Americans has a herbal lore and tradition that contains a wealth of information. Sadly in Great Britain an immense amount of this knowledge was lost during the persecution of 'witches' in the reign of James VI (James I of England and Wales), and then subsequently during the Civil War.

Although every nation has its own medical history, herbal medicine in the UK now combines herbal traditions from all around the globe, using; Gotu Kola from the Indian sub-continent, Gingko from the Chinese mainland, Echinacea from native American knowledge, Guarana from South America, Devil's Claw from Africa, and many more from Australia and throughout the world.

Local herbs have been used for several millennia, and were used ritualistically by ancient cultures. However there have been many visitors to the British Isles and many of them have brought with them herbs and traditional uses, these have been combined to form the herbal medicine that is used today.

  • Introduction
  • Ancient
  • Greek & Asian (Avicenna)
  • European
  • American - Physiomedical
  • Modern Medicine
  • Today; The emergence of Herbal Medicine
  • Introduction

    Herbal medicine is (and has always been) accessible, many herbs used to be available growing wild and could be picked as needed. Apothecaries and grocers also bought the herbs gathered from the countryside as well as importing herbs and spices from abroad. Nowadays they are readily accessible from herbal dispensaries and even greengrocers. In Britain today herbs from all around the world are available from a wide range of sources which we can use in cooking or use to make up herbal teas, tinctures, creams etc. Through the ages herbal knowledge has been past down from generation to generation, through families and from teacher to apprentice. In Britain this dissemination/sharing of knowledge was interrupted by 2 major incidences: the fear of being classed as a witch in the middle ages; and the spread of orthodox medicine.

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    Using herbs to improve health is the most ancient form of medicine, and still the most common form of medicine used in the world. There is even evidence of animals using plants to treat ailments, many of us have witnessed our dogs chewing on couchgrass when they have an upset stomach, they seem to instinctively know what to go for. In fact the use of herbal medicines is so widespread that most people will not even realize that they are using it (for instance many of the herbs and spices that are added to food aid the digestion)..

    Plant material has been found in Neolithic/ancient burial grounds, they are believed to have been placed there because they were found to be so useful in life, and therefore would be of use in the afterlife. The first text ever written about plants in medicine is on clay. It comprises a set of tablets engraved with cuneiform letters and its writers, the Sumarians, compiled it some 3000 years B.C

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    Greek and Roman

    The tradition of herbal medicine in Greece and Rome is well recorded in writings and other evidence. Books containing reference to hundreds of different herbs were available. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the Roman soldiers brought many herbs with them to treat any ailments, these herbs have since become part of our herbal store.
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    Although the Greek and Roman civilisations brought together a wide range of herbal traditions, Europe later became the centre of herbal traditions, in particular humoral medicine ie. the condition would be looked at as either dry, hot, cold, wet, phlegmatic. Another common way of treating with herbs was by the doctrine of signatures, where plants were chosen for their healing powers on how they looked in relation to the human body., eg lungwort is claimed to look very similar to a lung and therefore be useful for lung conditions..

    Medicine and the church
    The image of monks tending a herb garden and administering to the needy from their range of herbs, reflects the importance of the oral tradition of herbal medicine in Europe until the advent of printing when herbal books could help distribute knowledge more widely. Many monks wrote down their remedies and kept very accurate documentation on patients and what ailments they had and herbal preparations used, which has supplied us with a vast knowledge of how many of the illnesses and diseases of the time were treated.
    King Henry VIII - Surgeon's charter & Herbalist's charter
    King Henry VIII had keen interest in herbal medicine and was aware of the importance it played in his subjects lives. Many surgeons and physicians studied latin and used arsenic, mercury and leeches in treating their wealthy patients. They were very derogatory about those people that helped cure by herbs and wanted to stop this practice altogether. Herbal cure was the only treatments that poor people could afford. The Herbalists Charter of Henry the VIII, also referred to by some as the Quacks charter, was brought into force to stop surgeons and physicians of the time monopolising medical care and charging large amounts for the privilege. The charter stated that anyone who was skilled and knowledgeable in the use of herbs would be allowed to provide care to whoever so wished it. This was a very significant step forward in herbal medicine being accepted and recognised as providing a very essential service to the public.
    James VI (or James I) and witches
    The persecution of witches reached its peak with James VI of Scotland (James I of UK). During this time in history anyone using herbs to treat were immediately under suspicion of being a witch and were either burnt or drowned. Any written texts of the time were burnt and so a huge amount of information was lost.
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    American - Physiomedical

    In the USA the joining together of European knowledge and native American herbal knowledge led to a thriving and growing herbal medicine tradition. However in 1907 a change in government policy reduced funding for training. Only in 1994 with a change in law to a more liberal approach did herbal remedies quickly become more popular. (Chevalier, 2001)
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    Modern Medicine

    Herbs stayed in British pharmacopoeia and were used until fairly recently, with major changes occurring during the 1950's onwards. The move away from herbal medicines and natural remedies was comparatively rapid however we do know retired pharmacists who remember making up creams by hand during their early years.
    As many people know the origin of many modern medicines comes from herbs, including probably the best known medicine, ASPRIN.
    Nowadays in Germany and France herbal medicine forms a significant part of healthcare. Herbs such as Pygeum (in the treatment of some prostate conditions) and Hawthorn (in the treatment of some heart conditions) are amongst the most commonly prescribed herbs by conventional doctors. In Britain we lag somewhat behind and herbs are used comparatively rarely if at all in our National Health Service.
    The British National Formulary (BNF) is a book containing information on all commonly used drugs used in UK medicine. There are only a very few herbs mentioned, for example Senna (as a laxative for constipation), Gentian (as a bitter/tonic) and Ispaghula (Psyllium husks as a gentle laxative/fibre).
    For all that herbs and herbal medicine are on the periphery or even outside the NHS there are likely to be changes in the future as patient/customer choice means that a more holistic approach to healthcare is taken. In addition there are undoubtedly huge savings to be made by using herbs for many conditions in preference to conventional drugs.
    Click here for more details of A Herbal History of Modern Medicine
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    The Re-emergence of Herbal Medicine; Safety, Effectiveness, Control

    Herbal medicine and medical herbalism still have a long way to go to become fully integrated in healthcare and to become more than a choice of a minority of the UK population. The benefits of herbal medicine and herbalism are huge;
  • Effective for a wide range of conditions
  • Generally well tolerated and safe with few side-effects
  • A growing profession with increasing research, development and training
  • As some of the antibiotics discovered in the 20th century become less useful natural antibiotics are becoming more accepted.
  • However the limitations are also important;

  • Not as effective for many conditions as conventional medicine and surgery
  • Underfunded - because plants are not able to be patent protected companies cannot obtain patent protection and charge 100's of pounds for a few weeks medicine. Therefore limited money is available for research
  • Prone to extravagant claims, especially for problems such as skin complaints, weight loss, sexual problems and other potentially embarrassing conditions
  • There are some side effects, contraindications, interactions and precautions that are required when using herbal medicines. Sometimes when these are ignored newspapers can grab headlines highlighting the dangers. recent examples have included comfrey and ephedra which can damage the liver if taken long term.
  • Many people combine herbal medicine with prescribed medication, which should generally be done with guidance
  • Many herbs are available as concentrated extracts, which do not have a traditional use, or can be taken at levels far above traditional use. This can also reduce some of the ways in which are better as a whole herb than as a single extract (e.g. synergies are lost)
  • Despite all the problems listed above herbs have comparatively few problems, particularly when used sensibly and they are likely to become more and more popular.
    Chevalier, 2001 Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants.Dorling Kindersley, LONDON.