Herbal Medicine History and Its Influence Today

Growing up in a Hispanic household, I would often be told to treat stomach aches with mint leaves, stress with chamomile, and migraines with ginger. When medicinal drugs did not help aid the health of a family member, they would often turn to our family back in El Salvador or in Mexico for natural remedies and treatment options. It was something that was common to me and seemed reasonable to do when one was sick. As they reached out for help, many of my family members would suggest teas or eating a specific petal from a dandelion. As my interest in the medical field began to grow, I was astonished to find how herbal medicine was considered only a dietary supplement that came in the shape of a pill with powder inside rather than an aspect of medicine that could help find more cures in the healthcare system. That could create new drug formulas and expand pharmacology as we know it! The question remained, why did healthcare focus solely on the chemical side of medicine when alternatives in herbal medicine had existed?


Herbal medicine is also known as phytomedicines, Phyto meaning pertaining to plants. The written history of herbal medicine dates back to the Sumerians (5,000 years ago) who in their records provided descriptive medicinal uses for plants such as laurel, caraway, and thyme. The preparation of certain drugs had been discovered on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur and has been dated to be approximately 5000 years old. The recipes of these drugs included over 250 different plants. Archeological studies have found that the usage of herbal medicine goes as far as 60,000 years ago in Iraq and 8,000 years ago in China. One of the most notable pieces of medical literature in Chinese herbal medicine is the Pen-ts’ao, the earliest Chinese materia medica book. This book contained Chinese herbal remedies from at least 1,5000 different herbal drugs!


In Mayan culture, health was perceived as a “balance”. When one experienced illness or disease they would be in “imbalance”. They believed that health was the result of how one lives with the laws of nature and society. The treatments they would find for illnesses would be based on their knowledge of herbal medicine. They would conduct remedies that could involve swallowing, smoking, snorting, and being rubbed all over with that herb. They would seek specific colors for specific issues; red for rashes & burns, blue for natural sedatives, and white was usually avoided as the Mayans viewed this as a signal of death. Ultimately, the remedies created for these illnesses were based on a blend of mind, body, spirituality, and science


As the surge of western medicine began to take over the need for herbal medicine, many cultures adapted to this new style of medicine and began to lose their knowledge of herbal medicine. Many cultures became reliant on western medicine which caused its ability to expand and have a great influence over our healthcare system today. Medical doctors and other healthcare professionals began to incorporate radiation, chemical drugs, or surgical procedures. Western medicine included changes in diet and lifestyle. Although changes were made on how we receive healthcare and in what ways we do, one thing was made clear about western medicine; it's effective and fast. Modern-day physicians challenge the idea of herbal medicine use because of a “lack of scientific evidence” according to PubMed Central although the effectiveness of these herbs can be noted throughout early civilizations. Western medicine provides the opportunity of testing and expanding beyond what we understand which is why western medicine has been the prized style of many physicians.


In recent years, there has been a rise in the use of herbs because of the side effects we are seeing in chemical drugs, the lack of curative modern therapies for chronic diseases, as well as the unprecedented investment in pharmaceutical research and development. Today, Practitioners of modern medicine, offer the recommendation of herbs, herbal products, or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapy for their patients to see the effective treatment of specific diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘75% of the world’s population has been using the knowledge of herbal medicine for basic healthcare needs”. When you think about it even pharmaceutical drugs come from natural herbs and plants.


The benefits of Herbal medicine have proven to be beneficial for the health of society. There are fewer side effects and stabilization of hormones and metabolism. Not only that but they are more affordable to obtain than over-the-counter medicines. You can even grow it in your own backyard and have an unlimited stock of medicinal herbs! If we gave new generations access to information about what each herb and plant can do for them, then we can contribute to a healthcare future that doesn’t solely focus on western medicine rather it combines both herbal and western medicine creating more options for patients! Options that can create potentially lead to safer outcomes!


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