For millions of people worldwide, herbs are the medicines depended on the stay healthy. Before modern pharmaceuticals were discovered, Europeans and Americans relied on herbs. Even today in Germany, France and other European nations they use herbal medicines nearly every day. Although in Australia we have virtually cast them aside. Doctors are discovering that certain herbs work just as well as medicinal drugs for relieving common conditions. For the simple reason that the active ingredients in herbs are identical to the chemicals found in drugs. Aspirin, for example contains the compound acetylsalicylic acid, which eases pain, reduces inflammation and reduces fever. Before aspirin, people made tea from willow bark, which contains a compound called salicin, which has many of the same effects as aspirin.
Additionally many prescription drugs resemble (or are actually made from) herbs. The cancer drug etoposide is extracted from the root of the Mayapple plant. The heart drug Digitalis contains compounds similar to those found in purple foxglove. In fact up to 30% of the drugs we use contain ingredients that are very similar to compounds found in plants. Many drugs were created by mimicking compounds in these beneficial plants.
From herbs to medicine
Today equipment and expensive tests are used to figure out which herbs are effective. Original herbalists would watch animals in the wild to see which leaves, bark or berries they turned to when they were sick. Herbalists became very knowledgeable and were able to advise people on which herbs were best for headaches for example or stopping an infection.
By the middle of the twentieth century, there was less interest in the herbs themselves but the compounds that the herbs contained. The preferred method is for chemists to produce a synthetic compound that matches the molecular structure of the medicinal compound found in a plant. Also many modern drugs are synthetically created, but are based on compounds found in plants. It became possible to isolate and purify the chemical compounds from plants to make pharmaceutical drugs. A few examples of modern drugs that use compounds from herbs are Thymol, a compound found in thyme is a topical antifungal agent. Valapotriates is a compound found in Valerian and is used as a sedative in modern medicine. Also theophylline, found in cocoa and tea is used as a diuretic and bronchodilator. And theobromine in cocoa is used as a vasodilator. Also sennosides found in cinnamon is a laxative in modern medicine. Also rutin from citrus fruits (orange, grapefruit) is a treatment for capillary fragility. Also papain found in papaya is used as a Proteolytic, mucolytic to dissolve mucus and fibrin. It is estimated that 60% of anti-tumour and anti-infectious drugs on the market are of natural origin. The majority of these cannot be synthesised economically and are obtained from wild or cultivated plants. Natural compounds can also be leading compounds, directing the design of new drugs.
These new drugs offered a lot of advantages over their leafy predecessors. With laboratory precision it was possible to make thousands, or millions of pills each with exactly the same strength. This is more cost effective than herbs, drugs were also convenient. It was no longer necessary to spend hours searching for and preparing herbs, hanging them to dry, extracting their oils, or brewing them in a tea. It was much more convenient to take a pill. It wasn’t because herbs weren’t effective that people stopped using them, but more reliable, cheaper drugs like sulfa drugs and later penicillin became available.
Back to the Beginning
Natural substances make a better cure than synthetic drugs because our bodies are designed to absorb and benefit from naturally occurring plant molecules. Plant medicine is in perfect harmony with the body.
Today it is far easier to get over the counter drugs than herbal remedies that perform the same function. But more Australians are turning to herbs for a more natural way of healing. One benefit of using herbs is that they cause vary little unwanted side effects as they are mild and soothing and can be taken even when healthy. Drugs are highly concentrated, which is why they have such dramatic results. When using herbs you don’t get as much of the active ingredient in your body at one time and as a result, you are far less likely to get unwanted reactions or side effects. Herbs are a far more natural treatment option.
The main reason people are turning to herbs such as garlic, echinacea and feverfew is that they work. In one year German physicians wrote 5.4 million prescriptions for ginkgo, a herb that has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain. They also wrote 2 million prescriptions for echinacea, an immunity-boosting herb that’s often used for treating colds and flu. Research shows that taking echinacea as soon as you start to feel sick shortens the duration of the infection.
Garlic is probably the most studied herb, it contains compounds that have been shown to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure. One study gave two groups of people 21/2 ounces of butter for several weeks. Half of the people were given garlic extract containing the equivalent to seven cloves of garlic every day. Both groups experienced an increase in cholesterol, although the garlic eaters showed less of an increase in cholesterol. Also the garlic eaters had a 19% decrease in triglycerides (improved blood lipid profile).
Feverfew is a herb that has received attention as it appears to help prevent migraines. One study shows that consuming feverfew capsules can reduce the incidence of migraines in migraine-prone people.
Licorice root is a good example of a herb that may work better than its chemical counterpart. Licorice root contains phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens enhance the effect of estrogen that women produce naturally. It can be very useful for treating menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and moodiness. Also it may work just as well as HRT for some women and it does not increase the risk of breast and uterine cancer the way the medications do.
Getting used to herbs
Getting used to preparing and using herbs can take a little time. Natural food stores often stock hundreds of healing herbs packed into capsules, teas, dissolved in oil, tinctures (as liquid), or lying loose as leaves bark root and flowers. It’s not always easy to prepare herbs or choose the form to use. Each form provides benefits, but they act in slightly different ways. Herbal extracts act fast and are best if you want fast relief and are ill. You have to measure them, using a dropper or a teaspoon into a glass of water or juice. Herbs in their natural form or powdered can be used to make a tea. Herbal teas work slower than extracts, they are absorbed into the body faster than pills or capsules. Also many people enjoy the taste of freshly brewed herbal teas.
Store herbs in an airtight container as herbs will lose their potency when exposed to light and air.
It’s best to take healing herbs with meals instead of on an empty stomach. Also because herbs are medicine, check with your doctor before taking them especially if you’re taking medications.