Have you ever chewed on a piece of ginger to curb your nausea? Or sprinkled ground cinnamon in your oatmeal to help lower blood sugar? If the answer is yes, you are taking part in a tradition that stretches deep into our past.
One of China’s first books on healing was the Pen Ts’ao, written around 4,500 years ago, detailing the therapeutic properties of 365 medicinal plants. Many of the healing herbs outlined in the book are still in use today, including ephedra, yellow gentian, ginseng, and, yes, ginger and cinnamon.
For all of human history, people have explored their natural environments and found plants whose component parts — leaves, flowers, bark, stems, roots, seeds — bolstered health and even cured ailments.
Herbal remedies developed in an intensely regional fashion, as shamans and healers responded to the local climate and the array of plants growing there. People and their plants basically coevolved, and given that history, some herbalists still favor a localized approach to healing with plants.
“The plants that are in our backyards are being exposed to the same conditions we are — the same temperature, the same pollutants, the same insects,” says Maine herbalist Mischa Schuler, MS. “The plant’s own immune system is producing constituents that support our immune system, too.”
Herbal traditions remain strong. An estimated 90 percent of Africans, 40 percent of Chinese, and 70 percent of the population in India rely on herbal remedies.
In Germany, 70 percent of doctors prescribe plant-based medicines. There, “herbal medicines are completely accepted as drugs,” says Joerg Gruenwald, PhD, founder of Analyze & Realize AG, a German firm specializing in natural ingredients. “These treatments are part of the normal training of physicians and in pharmacology, too.”
As people migrated, herbal traditions spread. Many of the herbs that were once highly specific to a region and a population are now available to the rest of the world as teas, extracts, and supplements — and even as growing plants — offering us new opportunities for herbal treatment. Now, even in the United States, 38 percent of adults use some form of botanical medicine.
These migrations of people and their herbal traditions offer new challenges for conventional medicine. Realizing that certain patients are self-treating with herbal remedies, some integrative-medicine caregivers and researchers in the United States have made an effort to both understand and introduce these remedies to conventional practitioners.
Back in 1993, physiologist and women’s health expert Fredi Kronenberg, PhD, was founding director of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine at Columbia University. She initiated a “Botanical Medicine in Modern Clinical Practice” course, which over 10 years educated some 2,500 physicians about herbal medicine. She also worked with ethnobotanists at the New York Botanical Garden to create a manual for physicians on herbal medicine that identified the 74 most common herbs used by the local Hispanic population.
“We hope that physicians will be able to have a dialogue with their patients instead of just dismissing their herbal traditions,” Kronenberg says. “The idea is to build knowledge and trust, and thus improve clinical outcomes.”
Many people use botanical remedies because they’re worried about the side effects of conventional drugs or simply because these drugs haven’t helped them. Researchers are playing catch-up in regard to these practices, testing the efficacy of various herbal treatments. Sometimes they confirm the value of traditional remedies; occasionally they disprove them. Often, they discover entirely new applications.
“Look at ginkgo, which is one of the most popular herbs in the world,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. “Fifty or so years ago, the German company Schwabe started doing research on concentrated ginkgo, which they were standardizing into a phytomedicine. They found benefits for PAOD [peripheral arterial occlusive disease, in which the blood vessels of the legs and feet narrow and harden], and that use was never part of the historical record.”
Although people taking such standardized phytomedicines get herbal remedies in a highly concentrated form, they are different from conventional medicines in several ways.
“These herbal products are not made from synthetic compounds that came out of a lab and have a list of adverse side effects as long as your arm,” Blumenthal explains. Rather, they are made from relatively common plants.
Herbal medicines also differ from conventional pharmaceuticals in that their molecular structures and biochemical actions tend to be more complex.
“Drugs have one specific mechanism that works on one pathway, but plants have synergies along many different parts of the body,” says Jay Udani, MD, CEO of Medicus Research and director of integrative medicine at California’s Northridge Hospital. “It’s not easy to determine which part of the herb makes the remedy work, and often it’s the combination of different compounds in the plant that work together to cause the effect.”
For consumers, it can be dizzying to face the array of herbal pills and extracts on store shelves. When in doubt, it’s best to seek the advice of a naturopath or herbalist — someone familiar with the research who can recommend brands and formulations appropriate for your condition.
For those interested in exploring the healing properties of whole herbs, herbal teas and simple remedies like those described in the sidebar below can be a great place to start.
Yet, a deeper investigation of herbal medicines can quickly become dauntingly complex.
Mary Hardy, MD, was trained in internal medicine, but she had to reach outside academic circles to educate herself in botanicals. Later, as associate director of the UCLA Botanical Research Center, she helped inform the medical mainstream about the power of herbal remedies.
Hardy encourages her patients and medical colleagues to consider herbal remedies as a first line of defense. “Before you reach for an over-the-counter drug, think about a substitute. If I have nausea, I’ll try ginger first. If I have a headache, I’ll try a peppermint extract for aromatherapy. I use the most effective, least toxic therapy, and I get good results.”
Herbal medicine can be as simple as a cup of chamomile tea — the flowers plucked from your own yard, perhaps — or as sophisticated as concentrated herbal preparations taken with guidance from a specialist. In either case, you’ll join millions of people from around the world who are benefiting from nature’s abundant pharmacy.
This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Experience Life.