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Plant Medicine in History
Throughout human history, plants were the oldest known sources of our medicines as well as our food. The earliest known writings still in existence, the Vedas from India, refer to the use of plants as medicine. Plants with known medicinal properties have been found in tombs throughout the world, from ancient Egypt, to India, China, South & North America as well as Europe. Otzi, the famed "Iceman Mummy" discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and eventually dated to 5300 years ago, was carrying medicinal herbs with him when he died. (As an aside, he also had tattoos on acupuncture points and meridians, suggesting that early knowledge of the body's energy system existed outside the far east).
Even the vast majority of modern pharmaceutical drugs used modifications of chemicals originally derived from plant sources. In the case of modern drugs, however, these isolated chemicals are modified to permit them to be patented, so that drug companies can have a monopoly on the profits from their use. The downside, however, is that these isolated chemicals usually have a wide range of side effects and are far more dangerous to use than the plants they were origianlly derived from.
Forms of Herbal Medicines
In most cases, the best way to use plants is when they are freshly harvested. When we all lived on farms or other rural areas, this was easy to do; simply walk out your door, gather the plants you needed, and make them into medicine. For most of us living in cities, however, this is no longer practical. Currently, medicinal plants are available in several different preserved forms, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Teas are made from dried plant parts, usually leaves or flowers, though sometimes stalks, roots, nuts or fruits. Teas can be prepared as either an infusion, which consists of steeping the herb in hot water for 10-20 minutes, or as a decoction, which involves actively boiling the plant material in water for 30 minutes or more. A general rule of thumb is that infusions are used for leaves and flowers, while decoctions are needed for harder plant materials like roots, bark or nuts.
Powders are simply the same dried plant material you might use as a tea finely ground into a powder. They are delivered in two basic methods: (1) by mixing the powder in a liquid, such as water or juice, or (2) placing the powder into capsules. Powder capsules are generally considered to be the weakest form of herbal medicines. Sometimes, powders are made by first producing a liquid extract and then freeze-drying it, and grinding it into a powder.
Tinctures are a form of liquid extract, usually prepared by soaking the plant material in a mixture of water and alcohol for at least 2 weeks, up to several months. The length of time needed, and the relative proportions of water and alcohol will vary from plant to plant. By preparing the herbs as tinctures, the combination of both water and alcohol permits the extraction of both water-soluble and fat-soluble chemicals to be extracted from the plant material. The liquid form of these constituents is more easily absorbed into the bloodstream than any other form of plant medicine. For this reason, tinctures are generally considered to be the strongest form of plant medicine. Closely related to tinctures are something called a solid extract, which essentially is a highly concentrated tincture. Both tinctures and solid extracts are sometimes placed in gel caps, much like a typical Vitamin E capsule.
Biochemistry & Energetics: Western Herbalism
Plants achieve their therapeutic effects through two primary mechanisms. The first, and the most heavily studied, especially by modern science, is biochemical. As they grow, plants produce a variety of chemicals, often referred to as "phytochemicals" (from the Greek root 'Phyt' for plant). As a group, these tend to be highly complex molecules with a wide range of effects in the body. These include most vitamins, bioflavonoids and carotenoids, just to name a few.
The second major mechanism of action for herbal medicines is referred to as Energetic. This term is used to describe repeatable effects of plants, for which there is no biochemical explanation. Two very similar plants could have virtually identical chemical properties, and yet have radically different therapeutic effects simply because they possess different energetic properties. Sometimes this belief in the chemical properties is so strong that medicines have even been developed which test the medicine to measure the content of particular chemicals which are believed to be the active ingredient. If this measurement shows that the content of the desired chemical is too low, extra amounts of the chemical are added, to increase the concentration. These are referred to as "Standardized" medicines, and have essentially become drugs.
Western herbalism, meanwhile, must be considered in two distinct phases of its history. Modern herbalism is based primarily on biochemical knowledge, and plants might be selected for a therapeutic situation based solely on the chemical content of the plant. Early, traditional Western herbalism, meanwhile, relied more on Energetic properties. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge has been lost to time due to the "tradition" of book burning that took place in early Europe.
In modern Naturopathic Medicine, it is generally believed that the process of producing standardized plant medicines is less effective therapeutically, and in many cases can be dangerous, by producing unknown side effects through the druglike action of the standardized chemicals Instead, we rely on the knowledge that Nature is generally far more complex and knowledgeable than we are; using the plants in their natural form is safer and more effective. Plants contain thousands of chemicals, most of which have never been studied by themselves. This combination of naturally occuring chemicals produces synergistic and supportive effects, and disrupting this natural balance is usually detrimental.
Single Herbs and Formulas
When using plants as medicine, it is possible to use one plant at a time, or to combine several plants in the same tea, powder or tincture. When using one plant at a time, it is usually referred to as a Single Herb medicine. An older term still found in some literature, is a "Simple". When using multiple herbs in the same medicine, it is usually called a "Formula". The general consensus among alternative practitioners skilled in the use of herbal medicines, is that Formulas are more effective than single herbs, since it is seldom that therapeutic properties of any single plant can cover the entire constellation of symptoms and treatment objectives needed for a particular patient. In a formula, the different herbs interact both chemically and energetically to produce synergistic effects that could not be produced by single herbs, and which could not be predicted by the properties of the individual herbs in the formula.