How herbalism works

Namdaemun Market

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Most modern herbalists reject the mysticism, astrological connections and ideas such as the doctrine of signatures, that early practitioners often attached to their remedies. Herbalism aims to strengthen the body’s ability to resist disease and to make its own recovery, rather than to destroy the cause of the illness. Remedies are chosen according to the needs of each individual, with the initial diagnosis being made from a detailed personal history. Herbalists maintain that because they use the whole plant their remedies are more effective and cause fewer side-effects than the purified extracts or synthesized copies produced by the drug industry. The latter, however, still bases one-third of its products on substances found in plants, but insist that they are better because they are uncontaminated by possible harmful substances, and because dosage can be more easily standardized. Herbalists argue that the pharmacologically active component of the plant needs the presence of the other substances in the plant – proteins, enzymes, vitamins, glycosides, trace elements and so on – either to enhance its remedial effect, or to prevent unwanted side-effects which might occur with the isolated active ingredient. Take, for example, the widely used herbal remedy, the dandelion. One of its medicinal properties is that of promoting the elimination of fluid from the body (diuresis). Most of the modern diuretic drugs have the effect of depleting the body’s potassium, which leads to side-effects such as loss of appetite and muscle weakness and often necessitates giving patients potassium supplements. The dandelion plant, however, in addition to its diuretic constituent, also contains large quantities of potassium, thus giving the patient a natural protection against excessive potassium loss.

Ginseng roots in a market in Seoul, 2003

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Preparation

Herbal medicines are prepared either from the entire plant, or from different parts such as the root, stem, leaf, flower, fruit or seed, or from different tissues such as bark and wood, or gums, resins and sap. The plant is either used fresh or dried. It can be ground into powders or made into liquid extracts or tinctures. Herbal remedies come in several forms – tablets, lotions, suppositories and inhalants. One popular way of taking some of them is in the form of a tea or infusion. Suitable plants for herbal teas include camomile, mint and comfrey. In recent years an impressive range of herbal remedies has appeared on the market. Among those which have received particular attention are ginseng (Panax schinseng) and evening-primrose oil

Self-treatment using herbal remedies has become popular, but there is a tendency to mistakenly assume that because they are ‘natural’ they are perfectly safe. Some medicinal plants are very potent and can cause serious harm, even death. The foxglove, or digitalis, for example, is extremely useful for the treatment of heart disease but, if misused, it can cause death.

Science

The main area of disagreement between orthodox and herbal medicine concerns the use of ‘pure’, single therapies or compound ones. It is difficult to test the effectiveness of a herbal remedy with laboratory methods because each is suited to an individual per- son and not just a disease. Proof at present seems to lie with patients who have actually been helped by medicinal herbs, perhaps particularly those to whom orthodox medicine had nothing to offer.

Applications

Because herbal remedies aim to restore the body’s natural balance they are recommended for a wide variety of conditions, although excluding very acute ones. However, even these, the herbalists argue, may respond if caught early enough. Ailments for which herbal remedies are said to be beneficial include ulcers, asthma, skin disorders, kidney disorders, nervous conditions, and bone, joint and muscle complaints, to mention but a few.

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