Botanical Medicine

History of Botanical Medicine

Botanical medicine has been practiced since long before recorded history.  Archeologists have found Neolithic men with pouches full of herbs known to contain medicinal properties and ancient Chinese and Egyptian texts record the use of plants as medicine as long as 3000 years ago.

Botanical medicine or phytotherapy refers to the use of a plants seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark or flowers for medicinal purposes.  The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world’s population relies on herbal medicine as part of their healthcare regimes.  While botanical medicine was once considered “alternative”, and was discouraged by conventional doctors, improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine to treat and prevent disease.

Role of Plants in Pharmaceuticals

One quarter of all pharmaceuticals on the market are or were derived from plants.  In the nineteenth century scientific advances allowed the extraction and modification of plant compounds and thus plant medicines fell out of favor as laboratory synthesized pharmaceuticals took over.  Some examples of drugs that were based on plant compounds include vincristine (an anti-tumor drug), digitalis (a heart medication), ephedrine (a bronchodilator used in severe allergic reactions) and the common analgesic aspirin.

Contemporary Botanical Medicine

In Europe, botanical medicine is taught in conventional medical schools and MD’s routinely recommend remedies made from plants.  There are over 600 botanical medicines available both by prescription and over the counter in Germany.  In the last two decades public dissatisfaction with the price and side effects of pharmaceutical drugs has lead to a resurgence of herbal medicine in North America.  Thanks to this new found interest more and more scientific research is being done to explore the potential of plants as medicine.

Botanical medicines work similarly to drugs but often without the same potential to do harm. Drugs are typically a single chemical isolate, whereas herbal medicines may contain hundreds of different constituents that work in a synergistic fashion.  While plant chemicals may bind to the same receptors and have a similar effect as a drug, other substances that help mitigate side effects of the chemical in isolation are often present.  For example, NSAID’s (non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs) relieve pain but can also damage the lining of the stomach and intestine.  White Willow bark, the plant from which Aspirin was originally extracted, has potent NSAID effects but also contains chemicals which protect the lining of the stomach.

Botanical’s have powerful medicinal effects but tend to be gentler than prescription drugs and are typically used for long-term chronic conditions rather than for a quick fix.  Thus, using plant medicine tends to produce a deeper and more sustained level of whole body healing.  Botanical medicines often take a few weeks to exert their maximal effects, and may interact with over the counter and pharmaceutical drugs.  It is important to disclose everything you are taking to your health care provider to avoid interactions.

Herbal remedies that are taken internally:

Liquid herb extracts, Teas, Powders, Capsules & Tablets

Herbal remedies that are applied externally: Baths, Compresses, Douches, Oils, Ointments, Salves, Poultices & Plasters

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicines are not standardized and the quality can vary immensely.  The manner in which a plant is grown, harvested, stored and extracted can be the difference between a potent medicine and a waste of money.

It is prudent to consult a licensed herbalist or doctor well-versed in phytotherapy to ensure you are getting a remedy with medicinal qualities that is appropriate for your specific needs.

Vanessa Ingraham