For many western people, the term botanical medicine conjures up a mental image of little brown glass bottles with cork stoppers and assorted leaves and pieces of bark with a mortar and pestle on the side – we’ve all seen these stock images associated with any mention of herbs. Unsurprisingly, many westerners think of herbal medicine as a quaint bit of useless primitive tradition from a time when we didn’t have access to pharmaceuticals yet. Others read horror stories about some hapless person whose kidneys or liver was destroyed by some toxic plant prescribed to them by some quack, and see only skulls and crossbones when any mention is made of herbal medicine. Others like the idea of a more “natural” approach to living and dutifully take echinacea when they have a cold or a flu, but aren’t too sure whether it’s really doing anything for them.
Here are a few things to ponder about botanical medicine:
Throughout the world and throughout the ages, herbal medicine has been a part of human culture and even animals are often observed to be eating medicinal plants to cure their ailments. Initially it was an oral tradition, but in later cultures like the Chinese, Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians and Greeks, elaborate materia medicas were compiled over many generations. Chinese medicine, for example, has been in development for more than 5000 years.
Botanical medicine has by no means faded from common use. More than 80% of the world’s population depends on botanical medicine for its primary healthcare needs. Even in developed countries, the use of herbal medicines by medical professionals is very common, e.g. in France and Germany, more than 70% of physicians regularly prescribe herbal medicines.
Currently, the origin of pharmaceuticals is largely dependent on plants.
The process of developing a new drug and bringing it to the market is a process that takes about 10-18 years and costs about $300 million. Because plants and their extracts cannot be patented, it unfortunately doesn’t make business sense for pharmaceutical companies to research and develop products based on crude extracts of herbs. Instead, “active components” are isolated, altered in some way so that they can be patented, and developed into drugs. These altered molecules often don’t function quite like the natural molecule found in the plant. Besides this, there is often a synergism between the various biologically active molecules of a whole plant extract such that side effects seen in administering isolated molecules are mitigated by the other molecules found in the whole plant extract.
Since the mid 20th century, formal research into botanical medicines has grown exponentially. Today, thousands of studies in the field of botanical medicine are published annually and the future of herbal medicine is bright. Advances in cultivation, extraction and quality control are continually being made and today, herbal medicines of extremely high quality and dependability are available. This situation establishes a self-reinforcing circle of excellent products achieving dramatic results which justifies further research. Interestingly, this modern research is often found to corroborate observations made by traditional herbal healers and justifies the historic uses of botanical medicines.
In the hands of a knowledgeable practitioner, botanical medicines can be potent and safe tools in the recovery from illness and the establishment of wellness.