These days, the phrase “herbal medicine” is common in the Western world, but if you’re new to plant-based living, you might wonder what it means.
Clearly it has something to do with using plants and herbs to treat health conditions. Our ancestors relied on plants for millennia before the advent of Western medicine, and many Eastern and indigenous cultures still practice herbal medicine as part of daily life. Even some prescription drugs owe their existence to plant-based medicines, with active ingredients that replicate or were purified from natural sources.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what herbal medicine is all about, how these traditional medicines are used, as well as some precautions to keep in mind when diving into this wonderful, regenerative world. We’ll also share some of our favorite medicinal plants to include in your practice.
What Is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicine refers to the use of plants or botanicals to treat a specific ailment or to maintain health. Unlike pharmaceuticals that focus on a single active ingredient and its effects on the body, herbal medicines deal with whole systems, both in terms of what ingredients are used and how the body is affected.
When you use an herbal supplement to treat high blood pressure, for instance, you are not just taking a single chemical to relax blood vessels. You are using a wide array of different ingredients found in the same plant that work together to create an environment more conducive to normalized blood pressure.
Often, the interactions of these different ingredients are so complex that researchers struggle to pin down which chemicals are actively working to accomplish the task and what the processes are that allow them to do so.
How Are Herbal Medicines Used?
Herbal medicine often refers to the ingestion of herbs and botanicals, but this isn’t the only way to receive the benefits of these plants. Some work best or can only be used topically, while others have the greatest effect when used as aromatherapy.
Oral Supplements and Teas
Most everyone is familiar with herbal supplements that come in capsule, tablet or powder form. What makes these oral supplements different from something like a multivitamin is the use of whole plant ingredients. Where a vitamin C supplement will contain only ascorbic acid, an herbal immune-boosting supplement may contain ingredients like echinacea, cumin, ginger and elderberry.
In addition to tablets and powders, herbal medicines can be ingested as a tea made from dried leaves and flowers. These same dried ingredients can be added to vinegar or alcohol to make a tincture that is taken orally.
For external ailments, topical creams are a great choice. These herbal remedies consist of processed plants or plant extracts that are mixed with a carrier substance such as coconut oil or shea butter. The salve can then be applied directly to the skin. Essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant distillates, and ground plant parts can also be used to create healing compresses.
Many plant extracts are so powerful that just the smell of them can trigger changes within the body. It is believed that breathing in oils derived from plants causes the scent molecules to travel down the olfactory nerve where they activate certain processes in the brain. Aromatherapy consists of heating essential oils to disperse them in the air or applying them near the nose. Different plant oils have different physical and emotional effects, depending on their properties.
Herbal Medicine Precautions
While herbal medicines tend to be less concentrated than pharmaceuticals, they can still be quite powerful. For this reason, there are some precautions you need to be aware of before trying herbal medicine healing.
Like all chemicals, those found in plants can have undesired effects, especially when taken in high amounts. Always research the herbal remedies you hope to use and start with small doses before increasing to a normal medicinal dose. Talking to a licensed naturopath or doctor of traditional medicine is also a good idea.
In some cases, herbal medicines can trigger the immune system to react. This can lead to rashes, swelling and breathing problems. If you have known plant allergies, be sure to use extra caution when taking a new herbal supplement. Start with a very small dose and increase slowly until you are sure your body will not overreact to the ingredients.
The best thing you can do for yourself before trying herbal medicine healing is to educate yourself on the different plant products you hope to use. Each type has an optimal dose for treating different types of ailments. When looking at commercial products, you will also encounter vast differences in quality and potency, so be sure to research the different companies before committing. A licensed naturopath can help you in your research and will be able to inform you of any potential interactions each herb may have with different types of medications.
Powerful Herbal Medicines
There are literally hundreds of medicinal plants in the world. Many can be used to support a healthy body and mind while others target specific ailments. Here are four of our favorite, powerful medicinal herbs that are worth looking into if you are just getting started with herbal medicine healing.
- Turmeric – This potent yellow spice is a powerful inflammation fighter and cancer warrior. It is most often used as an oral supplement and is especially tasty in this healing smoothie.
- Echinacea – This beautiful flower is also an immune system champion and can be especially helpful for upping your defenses during the cold and flu season.
- Lavender – Everyone knows the scent of lavender has the power to calm and relax, but this popular plant is also a powerful antifungal and analgesic.
- Hemp – The oil from this non-psychedelic form of marijuana contains powerful cannabidiols that have been proven to fight cancer, treat anxiety, reduce seizure activity, and more.