Herbalism (botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy), is defined as the use of plants for medicinal purposes, and the study of such use. Plants have been the basis for medical treatments through much of human history, and such traditional medicine is still widely practiced today. Modern medicine recognizes herbalism as a form of alternative medicine, as the practice of herbalism is not strictly based on evidence gathered using the scientific method. Herbalism is also a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts.
Herb plants produce and contain a variety of chemical compounds that act upon the body and are used to prevent or treat disease or promote health and well-being. A herbalist is a professional trained in herbalism, the use of herbs (also called botanical or crude medicine) to treat others.
The first Chinese herbal book, the Shennong Bencao Jing, compiled during the Han Dynasty but dating back to a much earlier date, possibly 2700 B.C., lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses - including ma-Huang, the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine.
Sometimes the scope of herbal medicine is extended to include fungi and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts. People on all continents have used hundreds to thousands of indigenous plants for treatment of ailments since prehistoric times.
From the middle ages on, many practitioners have tried to classify herbal remedies by observation of their effects. This is closer to the modern scientific approach of gathering evidence.
Eastern herbal medicine still adheres to the mystical approach in its theories whilst western herbalists tend to use herbs for the ingredients they contain; mixing and matching them in the way that conventional medicine does with modern drugs.
The study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme.
Ancient Egyptian medicine of 1000 B.C. are known to have used garlic, opium, castor oil, coriander, mint, indigo, and other herbs for medicine and the Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation, including mandrake, vetch, caraway, wheat, barley, and rye.
The Greek physician compiled the first European treatise on the properties and uses of medicinal plants, De Materia Medica.
In the first century AD, Dioscorides wrote a compendium of more than 500 plants that remained an authoritative reference into the 17th century. The ancient Greeks and Romans made medicinal use of plants. Greek and Roman medicinal practices, as preserved in the writings of Hippocrates. Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was the Greek book that founded the science of botany, Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum written in the fourth century B.C.
In some cases, herbal medicines offer an inexpensive and safe alternative to pharmaceuticals. In the U.S., which has just 4% of the world's population, 106,000 patients died from and 2.2 million were seriously injured by adverse effects of pharmaceuticals in 1994 (Journal of the American Medical Association).
Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world's population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. However most herbalists concede that pharmaceuticals are more effective in emergency situations where time is of the essence.
Within the past decade, Americans have consumed ever-increasing amounts of traditional Chinese herbs and formulas. Some of these consumers are under the care and guidance of practitioners who have received specific training in the use of Chinese herbal preparations. Many, however, receive haphazard advice from both health practitioners and lay people who have had no experience or training.
In the case of Chinese herbal knowledge, its use by people unfamiliar with its rules and protocols invariably leads to mishaps: either the herbs or formulas fail to work as expected, or worse, side effects may result whenever herbs are used in contraindicated conditions. Whilst there is undoubtedly merit in testing plants for beneficial compounds they may contain, it is through a truly scientific approach that these benefits will be realized.