Phytomedicine or Herbalist: What is it?-Part III

Phytomedicine or herbal medicine is the science, art, and exploration of using botanical remedies to treat illness. A French physician named Henri Leclerc (1870-1955) was the person who coined the term phytomedicine when he wrote numerous essays on the use of medicinal plants. Treatment of disease with plants has been around since ancient times. It has been used by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, early Egyptians, ancient India as well as Native American Indians.

A list of the ten fastest growing industries in the United States would include herbal medicines. The interest in using herbal medicine spans all generations, but shows a definite spike in the elderly. It has been suggested that the interest in herbal medicine is a backlash against the highly technical and impersonal way conventional medicine is heading. It may reflect the general publicís attempt to create a gentler and ecologically sensitive medicine than has been created with technology-based medicine.

Herbalists believe that the body is a self-healing organism and that herbs should be chosen to enhance wellness, not simply relieve symptoms or treat disease. They look to reestablish a homeostatic balance in the body despite the varying environmental pressures. The practitioner of phytomedicine looks for those natural agents that can help the body help itself.

Apparently herbalists rely on the history of the presenting complaints as well as a review of physiologic systems to arrive at a treatment plan. They do not rely on laboratory tests. This is probably because they do not have access to these laboratories as well as feeling that tests do not reveal the whole picture. Interesting enough, individuals usually go to herbalists after they have obtained a diagnosis from their physician and feel unsatisfied with the results. While there is a similar disease classification in phytomedicine to allopathic medicine, the treatment usually involves a basic lifestyle change and a nutritional prescription, something that is only recently creeping into conventional medicine prescriptions.

For the most part, it would seem that herbal therapy addresses many chronic complaints that are only partially treated by conventional medicine and also everyday complaints in which people seek relief from a pill bottle. Again, instead of trying to block or reverse the process that produces disease, herbal therapy attempts to assist the body in search of wellness. The longer the condition exists, the longer it will take to restore the homeostasis or cause any change in the body.

In order to bring about change, the herbalist will develop an individual protocol around each individualís particular needs. This is somewhat similar to your physician selecting one drug in a class of drugs, feeling that with the symptoms you present, this particular drug will give optimal results with the fewest side effects. The herbalist knows that one plant may have three or four or more actions on the body and feels that it is this combination of actions that is important to restore the bodies rode to wellness. Conventional medications may also have this "shotgun effect".

A good source of information about herbal medicines is the German Commission E Monographs. It is a synopsis of the current research conducted in phytomedicine. (European nations are more attuned to use of herbal treatment, possibly because of the forms of medicine practiced there and of organized opposition from those who might have an vested interest in not having herbal medications on the market.) This monograph provides identification, therapeutic use, expected side effects and safety issues of more than 100 plants.

Other sources of information are:

This web site in no way endorses or condemns phytomedicine. It does believe that many herbs that may have been effective for certain conditions remain unproved, but this should not be mistaken for equating them as ineffective. Robust research needs to be done by qualified unbiased professionals not beholden to any particular pharmaceutical company. A start may be seen in the creation of a division of complimentary and alternative medicine in the National Institute of Health.

Please See: Herbs and Dietary Supplements-St. John's Wort-Part I
St. Johnís Wort -Herbs and Dietary Supplements-Part II-Ephedra
Herbal Medicine and Botanical Supplements Caveat-Part IV
Treating Osteoarthritis with Dietary Supplements-Part V
St John's Wort: Does It Help Treat Depression-Part VI
Kava: Safety Alert-Part VIII
Herbal Usage for Hormone Replacement Therapy-Part IX
Latest Research Questions the Effectiveness of Herbal Supplements-Part X


Harold Rubin, MS, ABD, CRC, Guest Lecturer
January 27, 2000

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