There is a rich age-old tradition of healing human ailments with wild plants, a tradition that has not died over thousands of years. The uses of healing plants have not varied, though today, with increasing knowledge of the origins of disease and of the pharmacology of plants, their uses have become better defined and understood.
Herbs are a natural medicine, part of our inheritance.
An interest in plants may begin in childhood when we learn quickly to distinguish garden plants from weeds and may return from a walk in the country clutching a handful of wild flowers. Enlightened education may open our eyes to the profound wonder of plant life, and if we are more fortunate we may incorporate in this wonder an understanding of the medicinal uses of plants. We should make a study of plant remedies, although it must be said that the use of herbs is a skill and an art, and the most successful herbalist, in addition to studying intensively, must surely have some inherited gift of healing.
Plants draw sustenance from the soil and manufacture chlorophyll from sunlight. They contain many constituents: essential oils which give the plant its perfume and have medicinal properties (i.e., to aid digestion, to stimulate the nervous system, or if used as liniments, to increase the flow of blood to a given area); tannins, which have an astringent action on the mucosa; glycosides, some of which are anti-inflammatory, while some have -a regulating influence on heart action; mucilage’s, which are used to soothe irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract; bitter principles which stimulate the secretion of digestive juices and improve the appetite. Numerous other constituents include resins, gums, minerals (notably sodium, potassium and silica), acids, vitamins and hormone precursors.
The herbal practitioner uses the total combination of these constituents, knowing that they will work in natural harmony together to have the desired influence on the body. The whole plant is used, or its roots, seeds or leaves, whichever part has the highest therapeutic value. The plant will be prepared in the form of tincture, liquid extract, syrup, tablet or external application, by methods which retain the optimum medicinal properties. Additionally, fresh or dried herbs are prescribed as tisanes or as fomentations.
Research in clinical laboratories and universities into the constituents of plants, seeking to isolate and then synthesize the most active substance has accelerated during the past decade or so. Isolation of the active principle has not always been so successful therapeutically as the researchers had hoped; it has been admitted that the single constituent has too harsh and powerful an action, whilst if administered in the complete plant form its action is controlled and assuaged. Warnings have been issued from time to time of the dangers of this or that plant. Investigation of the facts behind the warning reveal that massive doses of a single constituent have been administered to animals with unpleasant or fatal results, which should teach us that ‘man can never excel nature in manufacturing medicines’.
Research by herbal practitioners and herbal manufacturers is not based on use of animals but on long-established usage, experience in practice hand-in-hand with modern pharmacological knowledge.
The increasing demand for herbal medicine continues unabated.
What is its attraction? It is quite clear that more and more people are becoming disenchanted with modern drugs. Undoubtedly many of these can be life-savers, but they are often indiscriminately or carelessly used, and their side-effects can be numerous, often creating conditions that are as unpleasant and complex as the original disease they aim to treat. The side-effects of common drugs such as aspirin, which, if taken frequently can lead to peptic ulceration, or barbiturates which can deplete the nervous system, are giving rise to increasing concern. Hydrocortisone, so freely used to treat many inflammatory conditions from arthritis to skin disease, is destructive to the adrenal glands and can lead to the unpleasant disorder known as Cushing’s syndrome, a disturbance which leads to weight increase and ‘moonface’ amongst other symptoms .
Anti-depressants and tranquillizers can initially give quick relief during illness, but often an increasing dose is required and attempts to discontinue the drugs after a while can give rise to a variety of symptoms more wretched than the original depression. The modern drugs relentlessly take their toll of our bodies, and taken alongside a diet of instant pre-packaged foods which are grown with artificial fertilizers and full of chemical additives, the natural vitality within us is sapped and drained.
In contrast to these potent and toxic drugs, a wealth of remedies that are effective and restorative is found in the healing plants, which exert a gentle action and bring about healing without suppressing symptoms. Used in the correct therapeutic dosages they are perfectly safe and without side-effects. Potentially toxic herbs are not used by the herbal practitioner, nor are they for sale. The isolates from plants that are used in orthodox medicine, such as digoxin from foxglove, are more dangerous than the whole plant remedy which contains other constituents to counteract and balance the action of the more potent ingredients. Two glycosides in Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley) have a stimulating and regulating effect on the heart muscle, very similar to the action of digoxin but without its cumulative properties. Other glycosides present in the plant have a diuretic effect and the total combination of constituents work in harmony. There has been no evidence, in hundreds of cases treated, that the action of Convallaria has caused over-stimulation or any abnormality of heart-rate, or had anything other than a beneficial effect on the heart.
It is used by the herbal practitioner for angina pectoris, to strengthen the ageing heart, and for conditions resulting from arteriosclerosis.
Regular use of herbs in salads and cooking can help to avoid many common ailments, and to build good health.
Familiar culinary herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary, for example, are strongly antiseptic. Garlic is anticatarrhal, prevents worm-infestations, wards off colds and bronchitis and lowers blood cholesterol. In addition to the usual culinary herbs fresh plants such as dandelion leaves, chickweed, hawthorn leaves, fennel and lovage may be added to salads, enriching their nutritional and health giving properties. Infusions of herbs, taken regularly, will do much to improve and maintain health by their gentle action on different areas of the body. An infusion of chamomile or lemon balm taken after a meal for example, will enhance digestion, and calm and soothe the nervous system. Dandelion root or leaf, taken as an infusion or decoction will improve liver function. A tea made of seeds such as fennel, caraway, anise and cardamom will help prevent flatulence after a heavy meal.
Many herbal remedies with renowned medicinal properties owe much of their virtue to their rich content of minerals and vitamins. Nettles are a potent source of iron, silicon and potassium; dandelion root is rich in iron and potassium; rosehips are rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids, coltsfoot contains zinc and horsetail silica.