Botanical medicine, plant medicine, or herbal medicine, is the
use of whole plants and plant extracts for their medicinal effects.
There are several schools of herbalism deriving from various
cultures around the world with a wide array of very rich and
deep millennia old traditions.
Information from these different traditions can now be shared
quite easily through the internet. This is leading to a hybridization
of herbal medicine. Our knowledge of botanical medicine is currently
expanding at an exponential rate because of this relatively new
ability to access plants and knowledge from around the world.
There is also an increasing respect for indigenous herbal medicine
as research has shown that many of the plants used contain substances
that are as effective as pharmaceuticals. As a result, plants
that have not traditionally been used in Western herbalism are
now being highlighted, researched and marketed by ethnobotanists
and nutriceutical companies.
In indigenous cultures, herbalism remains one of the mainstays
of medical care. Unfortunately, however, as many countries become
more westernized and increasingly utilize pharmaceuticals, there
is a high risk that this ancient lore could be lost forever.
Another potential danger to botanical medicine is to the plants
themselves. As botanical medicine gains popularity in the West,
overharvesting, farming in non-indigenous climate zones, hybridization,
soil and ozone depletion all threaten the quality and very existence
of certain medicinal plants. It is vital that we remain conscious
of delicate ecologies and the balance between humans and plants.
In general, the advantage of using herbs as medicine is that
when used skillfully, they can be very effective and cause less
side effects than pharmaceuticals. However, just because something
is natural does not necessarily mean it is safe. Many herbs have
harmful side effects and must be used cautiously. There is a
wealth of information easily available about herbs and their
side effects, but you should always
consult and herbalist, naturopathic physician, or herbal reference
before taking herbal products you are unfamiliar with.
Schools of Herbalism
Western Herbalism derives much of its knowledge
from European and American traditions. Many of the modern pharmacognosy
and herbal studies come from this tradition.
Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine have
thousands of years of very refined, time tested formulas that
can be very effective. These schools of herbalism are also very
useful because they take into account the energetic qualities
of the plants — is the plant warming or cooling, grounding
or dispersing, drying or moistening. When the knowledge of these
herbal energetics is combined with the knowledge of the energetics
of a patient’s condition, the practitioner can be very
effective at “balancing” the condition of the patient.
Indigenous includes various Mayan, Native American,
and African systems of herbal knowledge.
Ways to Use Herbs as Medicine
For internal usage, herbs
can be taken in several forms.
- Capsules: Crude herb in powdered form and encapsulated.
- Tinctures: Alcohol or glycerin extracts of herbs.
- Solid Extracts: The herb is decocted into an infusion and
the liquid is boiled off until the herbal extract has a thick,
- Liquid infusion: Herbal tea.
- Tablets: The herb is powdered and sealed into a tablet with
binders like magnesium stearate.
- Standardized extract: The whole herb is used but there is
a guaranteed quantity of the component that is thought to be
the active constituent of the herb.
- Enhanced Delivery through food: Herbs can be mixed with substances
like milk or ghee (clarified butter) to have certain enhanced
therapeutic effects or to have more effective delivery to specific
Externally herbs are primarily used in three
- Poultice: The wetted and macerated crude herb is applied
directly to a part of the body.
- In creams, lotions, or ointments.
- As a succus or liquid extract.