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Herbal Medicine II - Naturopathy and Homeopathy

Herbs in Many Forms

Herbs and herbal products come in many forms, and are now available not only in natural food stores, but also grocery stores, drugstores and gourmet food stores.  Also, a number of multilevel marketing organizations sell a variety of herbal products, as do mail order purveyors.

Conditions Benefited by Herbal Medicine

Herbal remedies have proven to be highly useful for a wide range of minor ailments that are amenable to self-medication, including stomach upset, the common cold, minor aches and pains, constipation and diarrhea, coughs, headaches, menstrual cramps, digestive disturbances, sore muscles, sore muscles, skin rashes, sunburn, dandruff, and insomnia.   A growing number of American health consumers use herbal remedies for these conditions, which have been traditionally the domain of the nonprescription or over-the-counter drugs.

Other conditions that respond well to herbal medicine include:  digestive disorders such as peptic ulcers, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome; rheumatic and arthritic conditions; chronic skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis; problems of the menstrual cycle and especially premenstrual syndrome; anxiety and tension-related stress; bronchitis and other respiratory conditions; hypertension; and allergies. 

Herbal medicines can also be used for a number of conditions normally treated by prescription only.  One example is milk thistle seed extract for use in cirrhosis and hepatitis.12  Another example is the use of hawthorn as a heart tonic.13  This herb is highly recommended for cardiac patients by physicians in Germany (see The Herbal Medicine Chest section in this chapter). 

“When treating chronic illness with herbal medicine, it is extremely important to treat the entire body, as the illness may be simultaneously affecting many systems of the body at various levels,” says Mary Bove, N.D., L.M., head of the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences, in Seattle, Washington.  “The course of the treatment must include nutritional, tonic, and restorative plants in conjunction with herbs that support the body’s elimination functions. 

We find the alterative and adaptogenic plants to be very effective.   Digestive function is also an important consideration in most chronic diseases.   The duration of treatment is often longer, with a constant dose of the remedy being given over a longer period of time.” 

Dr. Bove reports, “I had a thirty-eight-year-old female patient who came in with a ten-year-old case of colitis.  She had been seen by several M.D.’s and N.D’s over the past decade with some improvement.  After discussing her long history, I chose to treat her from a different perspective.  Primarily, I gave her digestive nerviness and tonic herbs like catnip, lemon balm, and tilia flowers.  Within three days, she went from eleven stools per day to two per day.  I continued with these herbs, adding some others for gut healing.   We had excellent results which were supported by diagnostic imaging.

Herbal medicine has also had great results with arthritic conditions.   Consider the case of a forty-two-year old woman with rheumatoid arthritis, confined to a wheelchair due to extreme and almost constant pain and swelling.  She consulted with David Hoffman, B.Sc., M.N.I.M.H., past President of the American Herbalists Guild, whose treatment involved herbal medicine and a re-evaluation of her diet and lifestyle.   Herbs were selected initially to east the digestive problems caused by medications she was taking and to help her sleep.   Once such side effects were alleviated, a program was started that enabled her to completely abandon the wheelchair after six months.   Though she still had some arthritic pain, she was able to live with it comfortably.  

The uniqueness of each individual is important in evaluating any holistic therapy, whether it be homeopathic, herbal, or nutritional.  In order to prescribe effectively, it is critical that a physician be knowledgeable and adaptable to each patient’s individual situation.  John Sherman, N.D., of the Portland Naturopathic Clinic in Oregon tells of a woman he treated who came to his clinic complaining of heart palpitations.  She was also concerned about the drugs she’d been prescribed for her heart arrhythmia.  She told Dr. Sherman that the drugs had been “sapping” her energy and only partially helping her heart problem.   Dr. Sherman prescribed a combination herbal tincture of cactus, hawthorn, valerian, and lily of the valley, which is a standard combination naturopathic physicians use to combat arrhythmia and a “feeble” heart.   He also analyzed her diet to determine her intake of specific minerals which affect the heart, including calcium, potassium, and sodium.

She returned to Dr. Sherman’s clinic two weeks later, still complaining of heart palpitations and feeling even more frustrated.   Dr. Sherman decided to change the herbal formula slightly by adding scotch broom.   Within a few days, she happily reported the absence of any heart symptoms and was subsequently able to wean herself off the prescription drugs.

The Future of Herbal Medicine - Naturopathy and Homeopathy

According to James Duke, Ph.D., a scientist and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) specialist in the area of herbal medicine, one of the reasons that research into the field of herbal medicine has been lacking is the enormous financial cost of the testing required to prove a new “drug” safe.  Dr. Duke has seen that price tag rise from 91 million dollars over ten years ago to the present figure of 231 million dollars.  Dr. Duke asks, “What commercial drug dealer is going to want to prove that saw palmetto is better than his multimillion dollar drug, when you and I can go to Florida and harvest our own saw palmetto?”

Yet the future looks bright for those who want to explore the benefits of herbal medicine.  The demand for an alternative to synthetic and pharmaceutical drugs is growing, and herbal medicine is working to meet it.   “I feel very optimistic about the future of herbal medicine,” says David Hoffman, past President of the American Herbalist Guild.   “It has an abundance of gifts to offer both individuals in search of health and a society in search of compassionate and affordable health care.   With the growing recognition of the value of herbs, it is surely time to examine the professional therapeutic use of these herbs.  There are profound changes happening in the American culture and herbal medicine, ‘green medicine’ is playing an ever-increasing role in people’s experience of this transformation.”

Different Systems of Herbology

There is a great diversity and richness in the various herbal traditions of the world, most of which still thrive today.  Native American cultures contain a cornucopia of healing wisdom as do European traditions, from the Welsh to the Sicilian.  There are a number of highly developed medical systems around the world that utilize the medicinal plants in their healing work.   These include ancient systems such as Ayurveda from India and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The essential differences between these various systems of medicine are their cultural contexts rather than their goals or effects.

Traditional Chinese Medicine:

The restoration of harmony is integral to Chinese herbal medicine.   Harmonious balance is expressed in terms of the two complementary forces – yin and yang; and the five elements – fire, earth, metal, water, and wood.   The five elements are of particular importance to the Chinese herbalist; they give rise to the five tastes by which all medicinal plants are evaluated.   Fire gives rise to bitterness, earth to sweetness, metal to acridity, water to saltiness, and wood to sourness.   Each taste is said to have a particular medicinal action; bitter-tasting herbs drain and dry; sweet herbs tonify and may reduce pain; acrid herbs disperse; salty herbs nourish the kidneys; sour herbs nourish the yin and astringe, preventing unwanted loss of body fluids or qi.   Herbs that have none of these tastes are described as bland – a quality that indicates that the plant may have a diuretic effect.   The taste of a plant can also indicate the organ to which it has a natural affinity.   Besides   defining particular herbal tastes the Chinese ascribe different temperatures to herbs – hot, warm, neutral, cool and cold.

Ayurveda:

Ayurveda medicine has ancient roots in the Indian subcontinent.   It also recognizes five elements:  ether, fire, water, air, and earth.  These five elements manifest themselves in the body to form the tridosha or three basic humors:   vata (the principle of air or movement); pitta (the principle of fire); and kapha (the principle of water).  Ayurvedic Medicine sees all universal energies as having their counterparts within the human being.   The healing process seeks to achieve in individuals a balance between the elements of air or wind (vata), fire or bile (pitta), and water or phlegm (kapha).

Ayurvedic Medicine holds that the taste of an herb is indicative of its properties.   The Sanskrit word for taste, rasa, means “essence”.  There are six essences; sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  For example, pungent, sour, and salty-tasting herbs cause heat and so increase pitta (fire); sweet, bitter, and astringent herbs have precisely the opposite effect, cooling and decreasing pitta.   As in Chinese herbal medicine, ayurvedic texts categorize all plants according to this system, so that their herbalists can prescribe herbs more easily.

Western medicine:

The use of medicinal plants is also fundamental to Western society’s pharmacologically based approach to medicine.  The majority of medicinal drug groups were discovered or developed from the plant kingdom, even if they are now manufactured synthetically.  In fairness, one should note that most modern health professionals view medicines as biochemical “magic bullets,” which should be expected to provide instant results.  This approach has been very successful in certain areas, such as the treatment of acute illness, but has major limitations when it comes to chronic or degenerative disease.



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