Herbs – No Longer Just Tools For Medicine Men

HerbsFrom the very beginning of human civilization, herbs have been an integral part of many societies throughout the world, valued for their culinary and medicinal properties. In fact, herbs have been used for centuries as “special foods” to eliminate excesses and minimize deficiencies among humankind.

The term “herb” refers to a plant used for medicinal purposes. Are these herbs effective medicinal agents or is their use merely a reflection of folklore, outdated therapy or myth? Since the advent of modern hospitals, herbs lost its appeal as they are often relegated to the role of supplements against the more widely used synthetic drugs manufactured by giant multinational drug corporations.

But lately, there has been a silent global renaissance in the use of herbal medicine as an alternative to the monopolistic conventional synthetic products. It seems that science and medicine have advanced to the level where nature can be appreciated rather then discounted. Through modern processes, the scientific investigation of herbal products is replacing some of the mystery and romance of herbalism with greater understanding of the way in which herbal products work. Herbal medicine has become part of a truly integrated treatment that knows no boundaries between “conventional” and “alternative” in giving people more and better choices.

Herbs are being embraced on a scale unmatched for over three centuries not only in cosmetics, foods, and teas but also even in domestic products, alternative medicines and even veterinary medicines. In 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about 80% of the world’s population relied on herbs for their primary health needs.

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Going back to nature, is a truism, something that has caught on world over in the last decade. This has led to an upsurge in herbal products, where traditional health recipes and books are re-opened and re-examined after centuries. But it is only in the last decade that the world has truly seen the commercialization of herbal products. Herbal care has now become a full-fledged wave, encompassing both beauty care and health care products.

Herbal medicine is now part of mainstream medicine because of its therapeutic effects, which tend to normalize physiological function and the fewer side effects of such medicines. As modern medicine gains more knowledge and understanding about health and disease, it has started adapting therapies that are more natural and less toxic than the ones currently in use. Lifestyle modification, stress reduction, exercise, meditation and dietary changes are becoming popular. This illustrates the paradigm shift that is occurring in medicine. Herbal medicine, once ignored, is now accepted as an effective alternative. In fact, in many instances, natural alternatives offer significant benefits over standard medical practices.

In the world of herbal care, the most extraordinary feature of herbs is their incredible versatility. One may think of a particular herb as useful for flavoring food or as a source of perfume, for example, then discover it has other applications. A herb that is prized in cooking may also be of value against pests in the garden, one used in beauty care that may also be a healing herb. The magical biochemistry of herbs makes possible these diverse properties.

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Considerable research has now proven the efficacy of many herbs, and researchers have now moved to attempt to define their mechanisms and sites of action. For example, Reserpine, an anti-hypertensive drug, was isolated from the plant Rauwolfia Serpentia. Curcumin, the active principle of the plant Curcuma Longa (turmeric) has been found to exert an anti-inflammatory effect by inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis. Similarly, many plants strengthen host resistance. These plants increase tissue resistance to disease, a concept similar to”prohost therapy”. Prohost therapy augments cellular responses and consequently, ameliorates disease states.

A point of caution is advised however, as the claim that herbs are absolutely safe is not true. Every herb is a collection of various chemical entities that vary in nature, depending on the part of the plant used. Toxicity and safety studies are an essential part of basic research, since toxicity of herbs and parts of the plant used in various concentrations has been reported by several scientific journals. After long term safety and efficacy of the individual herbs are established, the proper combination of various herbs are achieved to attain synergism.

It is quite apparent that many of the “wonder products” of the future will be derived from plants. The future of herbal care looks extremely positive provided the shortcomings like lack of scientific support, standardization and quality control are overcome.

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