Herbal Medicine Fundamentals
The American Herbalists Guild, a non-profit, educational organization for the furtherance of herbalism, frequently receives questions about herbs. The following are among the most commonly asked. If any of your questions are not answered here, you may contact us for further information.
WHAT IS AN HERB?
Medicinally, an herb is any plant or plant part used for its therapeutic value. Yet, many of the world's herbal traditions also include mineral and animal substances as “herbal medicines".
WHAT IS HERBAL MEDICINE?
Herbal medicine is the art and science of using herbs for promoting health and preventing and treating illness. It has persisted as the world's primary form of medicine since the beginning of time, with a written history more than 5000 years old. While the use of herbs in America has been overshadowed by dependence on modern medications the last 100 years, 75% of the world's population still rely primarily upon traditional healing practices, most of which is herbal medicine.
HOW ARE HERBS DIFFERENT FROM PHARMACEUTICALS?
Most pharmaceutical drugs are single chemical entities that are highly refined and purified and are often synthesized. In 1987 about 85% of modern drugs were originally derived from plants. Currently, only about 15% of drugs are derived from plants. In contrast, herbal medicines are prepared from living or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated compounds. Science is beginning to demonstrate that the safety and effectiveness of herbs is often related to the synergy of its many constituents.
HOW IS HERBAL MEDICINE DIFFERENT FROM CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?
The primary focus of the herbalist is to treat people as individuals irrespective of the disease or condition they have, and to stimulate their innate healing power through the use of such interventions as herbs, diet, and lifestyle. The primary focus of conventional physicians is to attack diseases using strong chemicals that are difficult for the body to process, or through the removal of organs. Not only does this ignore the unique makeup of the individual, but many patients under conventional care suffer from side effects that are as bad as the condition being treated. The philosophical difference between herbalists and conventional physicians has profound significance.
WHAT IS AN HERBALIST?
Herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They include native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters, and herbal farmers to name a few. While herbalists are quite varied, the common love and respect for life, especially the relationship between plants and humans, unites them. Persons specializing in the therapeutic use of plants may be medical herbalists, traditional herbalists, acupuncturists, midwives, naturopathic physicians, or even one's own grandmother.
HOW CAN HERBS AND HERBAL MEDICINE HELP ME?
Herbs can offer you a wide range of safe and effective therapeutic agents that you can use as an integral part of your own health care program. They can be used in three essential ways:
- to prevent disease
- to treat disease
- to maximize one's health potential
Herbs are also used for the symptomatic relief of minor ailments.
HOW CAN I KNOW IF A PARTICULAR HERB WILL WORK FOR ME?
Medicine is an art, not just a science. No one can predict which herb will work best for every individual in all situations. This can only come with educated self-experimentation and experience or by seeking the assistance of those who are knowledgeable in clinical herbal medicine. The simpler the condition, the easier it is to find a solution. The more complicated the condition, the greater the need there is to seek expert advice.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR HERBS TO BE EFFECTIVE?
The success of herbal treatment always depends upon a variety of factors including how long the condition has existed, the severity of the condition, the dosage and mode of administration of the herb(s), and how diligently treatment plans are followed. It can be as short as 60 seconds when using a spoonful of herbal bitters for gas and bloating after a heavy meal; 20 minutes when soaking in a bath with rosemary tea for a headache; days when using tonics to build energy; or months to correct long-standing gynecological imbalances. Difficult chronic conditions can often take years to reverse.
HOW SAFE ARE HERBS?
It depends on the herbs. Most herbs sold as dietary supplements are very safe. When used appropriately, the majority of herbs used by practitioners have no adverse side effects. A review of the traditional and scientific literature worldwide demonstrates that serious side effects from the use of herbal medicines are rare. According to Norman Farnsworth: “Based on published reports, side effects or toxic reactions associated with herbal medicines in any form are rare. In fact, of all classes of substances reported to cause toxicities of sufficient magnitude to be reported in the United States, plants are the least problematic."
WHERE CAN I GET SAFETY INFORMATION?
Read product labels carefully. Many manufacturers provide appropriate information. There are also a number of references that are commonly available (see sidebar). As with all medicines, the primary determination of whether a medicine is appropriate for you is based on your own experience.
HOW IS THE HERBAL INDUSTRY REGULATED?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) primarily regulates the marketing and advertising of products.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) primarily regulates the manufacture and labeling of herbal products and has legal authority over assuring that products are manufactured correctly and are truthfully labeled with respect to ingredients and claims. Additionally, there are a number of trade associations that require member companies to adhere to specific codes of ethics and conduct their own testing programs.
HOW DO HERBALISTS PRACTICE?
Herbalists can practice either as primary health care providers or adjunctive health care consultants. Most visits to an herbalist begin with a consultation about your past and current health history, your dietary and lifestyle practices, or other factors related to your health issue. The herbalist, with your involvement, should develop an integrated herbal program that addresses your specific health needs and concerns. You should be treated as a whole person, not as a disease.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO USING HERBS?
Various herbal traditions have developed worldwide. In the West there are a number of different traditions which include folkloric herbal practices, clinical western herbal medicine, naturopathic medicine, practitioners of Ayurveda or Chinese medicine, and numerous Native American herbal traditions. Some practitioners use highly developed systems of diagnosis and treatment while others base their treatments on individual knowledge and experience. Every person must find the herbal practitioner that is most appropriate for them.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF HERBALISTS?
Traditional Western, or Community Herbalists, base their work on traditional folk medicine or indications of historical uses of herbs and modern scientific information. Backgrounds may include folk, Native American, eclectic, wise woman, earth-centered, or other traditions. They may be trained through traditional or non-traditional methods such as apprenticeships, schools, or self-study. Medical or Clinical Herbalists are present in the United States and in most of the nations in the European Union. Professional education is offered in the USA and throughout Europe in a variety of formats. Most programs cover the traditional uses of herbs, the basic medical sciences of biochemistry, nutrition and anatomy as well as diagnosis and prescription. The most common titles given to medical herbalists from the Western world include: RH (AHG), Registered Herbalist, American Herbalists Guild; MCPP Member, College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy; FNIMH Fellow, National Institute of Medical Herbalists; MNIMH Member, National Institute of Medical Herbalists; FNHAA Fellow, National Herbalists Association of Australia.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the traditional medicine system of China, is the second-largest medical system in the world after Western medicine. TCM doctors go through extensive training in theory, practice, herbal therapy, and acupuncture. Quite a few states now license acupuncturists, and many consider them primary health care providers. Their titles may include L.Ac. Licensed Acupuncturist; OMD Doctor of Oriental Medicine; or Dip. C.H. (NCCA) Diplomat of Chinese Herbology from the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists.
Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine, (Ayurveda), the traditional medical system of India and Nepal, is the third largest herbal medicine system in the world today. Ayurvedic doctors treat more than 80 percent of the people on the Indian subcontinent and go through extensive training that can last as long as 12 years. Some use the title M.D. (Ayur.) when they come to English speaking countries, while those who have passed the accreditation process of the American Ayurvedic Association are given the title D.Av. Diplomate in Ayurvedic Health Sciences.
Naturopathic Medicine integrates traditional natural therapeutics with modern scientific medical diagnoses and western medical standards of care. Most licensed naturopathic physicians, (N.D.) have received full medical training at one of four fully accredited medical universities in North America. There are currently 13 states that license the practice of naturopathic medicine.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A QUALIFIED HERBALIST?
First and foremost recognize that the relationship between a health care provider and a client should begin with clearly articulated goals and responsibilities. Every client should be fully informed of the experience, training and services provided by the practitioner. Similarly, the provider should clearly understand the goals and desires of the client. Together the client and provider must determine if the experience and services provided meet the needs of the client. For help in finding a qualified herbalist, either contact your local health food or herb store for referrals, ask for recommendations from people whose judgment you trust, or contact a national organization such as the American Herbalists Guild.
The American Herbalists Guild (AHG) was founded in 1989 as a non-profit, educational organization to represent the goals and voices of herbalists. It is the only peer-review organization in the United States for professional herbalists specializing in the medicinal use of plants.
Herbalists from any tradition with sufficient education and clinical experience, who demonstrate advanced knowledge in the medicinal use of plants and who pass the AHG credentialing process (a careful review by a multidisciplinary admissions board) receive professional status and the title, Registered Herbalist (RH), AHG. The AHG has a developed a code of ethics, continuing education program and specific standards for Registered Herbalists. The American Herbalists Guild's roster of Registered Herbalists includes some of the most respected herbal authorities in the United States and abroad. Please contact the American Herbalists Guild for a free brochure or find a registered herbalist in our National Directory of Registered AHG herbalists.