The origin of herbal medicine is tied back to the start of mankind itself. There is evidence of the use of medicinal plants in some of the earliest forms of the written word, and likely before that. There are strong ties between herbal medicines, food, religion and even what would become more “traditional” medicines.
Mesopotamia and Egypt. The written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years when we see Sumerians’ clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants like myrrh and opium. In Egypt, there are studies of “diseases of the skin” and there is written information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake. Treatments were mainly aimed at ridding the patient of the most prevalent symptoms because the symptoms of the disease were incorrectly regarded as the disease itself.
India and China. India’s system of “ayurveda” medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as this system. Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were later described by ancient Indian herbalists, like in the “Sushruta Samhita,” written in the 6th century BC and describing 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources. In China, the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing” lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses – including Ephedra (the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine), hemp, and chaulmoogra (one of the first effective treatments for leprosy). Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.
Herbal Medicine is the Only Medicine. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, herbal medicine was the primary form of medication taken worldwide. Physicians were few and far between, but access to herbs and herbal medicines in the United States in particular was commonplace. Publications such as Dodoens’ New Herbal, Edinburgh New Dispensatory and Buchan’s Domestic Medicine sought to guide the home herbalist in finding and dispensing medications to their family. Aside from European knowledge on American plants, Native Americans shared some of their knowledge with colonists, but most of these records were not written and compiled until the 19th century. John Bartram was a botanist that studied the remedies that Native Americans would share and often included bits of knowledge of these plants in printed almanacs.
The formalization of pharmacology in the 19th century led to greater understanding of the specific actions drugs have on the body. At that time, Samuel Thompson was an uneducated but respected herbalist who influenced professional opinions so much that doctors and herbalists would refer to themselves as “Thompsonians,” distinguishing themselves from “regular” doctors of the time who used calomel and bloodletting.
Pharmaceuticals on The Shelf. In the light of Thompsonians, and the beginning rift between doctors and herbalists, physicians were quick to embrace pharmacology in 19th century as it helped to treat particularly pesky diseases. As a result, though, the use of herbal medicines became known as “alternative medicine,” implying it is somehow lesser. An overcorrection had occurred and while bloodletting and other medieval therapies were put by the wayside, herbal medicine mistakenly was lumped in with those, too.
Holistic to the Rescue. As the 21st century dawns, the overcorrection of the modern, pharma-centric wave of medical practice seems to be subsiding. The “Opioid Crisis” as some have begun to call it has patients and care providers looking to treat illness in a safer, more traditional way, and herbal medicine is the obvious choice. Physicians are now providing a “holistic” approach to medical care – which may include herbal medication and diet recommendations along with pharmaceuticals.