Herbal medicine is older than any other type of healthcare. Every culture has taken advantage of herbs and their benefits. Herbal medicine began with primitive cultures using different plants for shelter, clothing, and medicine. Man learned medicinal benefits of plants through trial and error methods in addition to observing animals. Man’s knowledge of herbs and their medicinal uses advanced over time. Herbal pharmacopoeias were developed by different tribes. Even the pharmacopoeia of scientific medicine in the 20th century was developed primarily from native herbal lore. Herbal medicine continues to influence the medicines of today. Up to 25 percent of all prescription drugs in the United States have at least one active ingredient that comes from plant extracts or synthesized plant compounds.
As many as 4 billion people, or 80 percent of the earth’s population, are estimated to use a form of herbal medicine in their health care, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Herbal medicine is a large part of naturopathic, homeopathic, Native American Indian, Ayurvedic, and traditional oriental medicine. Of the 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical drugs, as many as 74 percent are used in the same ways the plants were used by natives. Plants gathered from locations such as the rain forests are being studied for their possible medicinal values by various pharmaceutical companies.
Conditions such as high blood pressure, asthma, pain, and heart disease are often treated today with commercial medicines containing plant-based substances. Ephedrine is derived from an herb called ephedra and is used in commercial medicines to relieve respiratory and asthma symptoms. The actual herb ephedra has been used for over two thousand years in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat the same symptoms.
The foxglove plant is an herb that has been used since 1775. Today this herb, also referred to as the cardiac stimulant digitalis, keeps millions of heart patients living all over the world.
Branches of Herbal Medicine include Ayurvedic Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Herbalism. Ayurvedic Herbalism stems from Ayurveda and Western Herbalism and originated in Greece and Rome. Its practice spread throughout Europe and eventually to North and South America. Traditional Chinese Herbalism comes from Traditional Oriental Medicine.
Western Herbalism is now considered folk medicine. Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbalism differ because they have developed over centuries into very advanced forms of treatment and systems of diagnosis.
People in the United States are continually gaining interest in herbs because of an increasing number of success stories. One example is the use of St. John’s Wort to treat forms of depression. People have used this drug to avoid using Prozac, which produces unwanted side effects. Certain Ayurvedic herbs are commonly used to help those with conditions including diabetes and high cholesterol. Herbs such as Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo) and Ginseng continue to increase in popularity because of their helpful effects.
To find a list of the most popular herbs used in herbal medicine please visit our herbal supplements section.