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Herbalism Through Time

Most people have heard of Herbalism. Often it is a vague notion of using herbs, somehow. Herbalism is the study of herbs for the purpose of medicinal or therapeutic practices. Every civilization has had some form of herbal practice. Throughout time, humans and animals have been familiar with plants that can help them to become well or healthy. (Mandelbaum) Archeologists have found medicinal plants that date back at least 60,000 years! Formal herbal medicine has been practiced by the Sumarians over 5000 years, in China for 22oo years, and in India since the Second century BC. Herbs as medicine are found in Europe, Africa, North and South America, Australia, Japan, Northern Asia, Scandinavia, and more. Aristotle taught the Four Basic Qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry), Galen taught about the Four Humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), and Galen and Discorides also worked with the Doctrine of Signatures (the plant parts resemble the part of the body that this plant works for). Honestly, I can’t cover all of the amazing history of this subject in a short blog but it is a fascinating story and the development of modern medicine has its roots here.

Yes, modern medicine got its start with plants. The medicines used to treat various illnesses and to perform surgeries were all plant-based. Dioscorides, who is considered “the father of pharmacognosy,” studied medicinal plants while traveling with the Roman Army. In 77 Ad he wrote “De Materia Medica,” which contained his knowledge of all of these plants. It was the leading authority in medicinal plants and was translated into many languages until the beginning of the Renaissance. (Ncbi)

By the 1800’s advancements were made in isolating compounds within medicinal herbs, such as alkaloids, glycocides, and more. This practice would eventually lead to today’s pharmaceutical companies. Today, many countries maintain a pharmacopeia of medicinal plants, however, this is not a primary part of medicine in the United States. A resurgence of interest in herbal medicinals in the U.S.A., however, has meant that doctors must once again become familiar with herbals and their interactions with allopathic medicine.

If you feel that an herbalist may be helpful to your goals, be sure to find one who is willing to work with you to design a program that you will follow. Herbalists in the U.S.A. cannot prescribe, they can only suggest. It is important to know how long the herbalist has been working with plants, what is their philosophy of working with medicinal plants, whom did they study with, do they continue to study, and what is their approach to working with clients? Expect to be with an herbalist for an extended time at the first meeting. You will probably be asked to fill out a questionnaire prior to this meeting. As we are all used to quick questions and quick visits to the doctor in this country, this may be confusing, frustrating, and long for many people. Herbalists look at the whole person and want to get a sense of your nutrition, medications, and lifestyle. Why is this important? Because these areas give clues to underlying issues in your body. For example, you may seek help from an herbalist for a skin issue when really it is a digestive issue. The body presents symptoms in different ways in each person. The herbalist will go over this form and also ask about the problems that brought you to see them. Once the herbalist has a picture of who you are as an individual, a plan will be created to assist you. You get to be a part of creating this plan because you are the one who will be doing the work of following it. Please know that your plan could include herbs, exercise, a nutrition change, a visit to the doctor for blood work, or a referral to a specialist. Your plan may include a follow up visit to the herbalist or many future visits, depending upon your needs and goals. What makes a plan work? Your willingness to follow it through. No herb will do its job if you don’t take it. No internal body environment can become balanced unless you are willing to eat differently and get a bit of exercise.

Medicinal herbs can be gentle or very powerful (especially those with alkaloids). Whole plant herbs can work quickly but most will take time to work on the body and promote change. The beauty of this is that the body (and our mindset) get a chance to make adjustments as the herbs do their work. Unfortunately, many people who see herbalists think that they will work exactly like allopathic medicines only “healthier.” Most herbalists feel that promoting health and well-being in the body reduces the chances of illness. When illness does strike, herbs will help the body to restore balance. Balance in the body takes time. No one herb works exactly the same in each person because of our environment, body type, weight, stress levels, nutrition, and more. While one herb may work really well for “everyone’s” overall digestive health, the amount you take may vary from person-to-person. Herbs are not equal to drugs. Herbs use their whole constituents while drugs are made up of individual constituents.

As an herbalist, I believe that there is a time and place for allopathic medicines. Working to keep my body in a state of health is an on-going process, especially as I age and my body’s needs change. I prefer to do all I can to stay well with the use of herbal medicines, nutrition, and exercise, as well as reading and having some fun. If a very serious event should occur, I would see my doctor for help but herbs would also be there to assist. This philosophy is what I offer to my clients. Please don’t look to social media for herbal suggestions. Look for an herbalist (or naturopath) in your area for an individualized plan. Each of us is a unique being and we should treat ourselves that way when it comes to medicinal herbs.


Barbara Aspland-Wolf, Garden Gate Herbals

“Zoopharmacognosy: Not Every Herbalist is Human,” Richard Mandelbaum, RH, appeared first at the 2017 American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference.

“Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage,” Biljana Bauer Petrovska, Pharmacogn Rev. 2012 Jan-Jun; 6(11); 1-5.

Victorian Pharmacy, an historical recreation of herbals in the British Victorian period.

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