Herbal medicine has been around since ancient times. Read on to discover why herbs and herbal remedies are gaining popularity again.
Herbal medicine may seem hip and new to many, but archeological excavations show that humans have been using plants for medicinal purposes for 60,000 years. The oldest surviving written record of medicinal plant use dates from 1500 BC in Egypt.
Some cultures, such as those in China and India, developed highly sophisticated systems of medical treatment centuries ago primarily based on plants that are still widely used today. In underdeveloped areas where commercial pharmaceuticals are either not available or too expensive for the average person, herbal medicines are still used extensively.
Many of our most effective pharmaceuticals have their origins in plants, including
- Aspirin (its active ingredient is found in willow bark)
- digoxin (a drug used to treat heart failure and correct arrhythmias made from the highly toxic digitalis plant)
- quinine (a malaria treatment made from the bark of the cinchona tree)
A growing number of people in developed countries who have full access to Western medicine are integrating the use of herbal medicine with Western medical practices.
So we take our echinacea in hopes of staving off the worst of the flu bugs flying around the office, but will go to the doctor for a prescription if the nasties get the better of us. It’s a win-win situation, according to Seraphina Capranos, a BC certified homeopath and herbalist who also teaches in-depth herbal training workshops.
Best of both worlds
“Yes, I absolutely see herbal medicine and allopathic medicine working together harmoniously,” she says. “By using herbal medicine as a first choice in non-urgent situations, we can nourish, rebalance, and support the body to truly heal.” As well, she points out that doing so can take pressure off our health care system. “Herbs, compared to drugs, are inexpensive.”
When Beverley Gray walks into her garden, she doesn’t see weeds, as most people would. Instead, she delights in chickweed with its lacy mat of tiny leaves. Horsetail doesn’t induce fear and loathing in her as it does in those who watch, helpless, as it creeps into every part of the garden. And the cursed dandelion? A hero in her eyes.
“It’s the most intelligent plant on earth,” she insists, giving it top marks as a herbal remedy, a restorative body tonic, and a fabulous salad, stir-fry, and soup ingredient. She’s equally smitten with nettles, plantain, and a host of other wild plants that offer wellness and healing properties.
Gray, a trained herbalist who calls the Yukon home, lives in the wilds about 45 kilometres from Whitehorse. She owns Aroma Borealis, a small herbal shop that carries more than 200 different products she makes primarily from native wild plants.
Gray’s written a definitive book, The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North (Aroma Borealis Press, 2011), on the bounty of wild plants in the North that have healing properties. Her latest is A Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants of Canada (Harbour Publishing, 2013), an easy-to-pack guide on how to forage for common wild plants for use in herbal remedies and concoctions.
“Herbalism is alive and well in Canada,” says Gray. “Herbal medicine is the people’s medicine.”
According to a 2010 Ipsos Reid survey prepared for Health Canada, 73 percent of Canadians consume natural health products such as vitamins and minerals, herbal products, and homeopathic medicines. The federal government’s definition of “natural health products” (NHPs) also includes probiotics, amino acids, and essential fatty acids, as well as traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, both of which are largely based in ancient herbal remedies.
Safety and side effects
Many people believe that botanicals are generally safe to use and have fewer side effects than standard drugs.
“In my experience people usually do seek herbs to treat disease first,” says Caprano. “They’re worried about their health and want something that will work and is safe. Once they’ve had success, their trust in herbs increases and they learn that not only has their primary health concern disappeared or been ameliorated, they feel better overall and they begin to see herbs can also be used preventively to promote overall vitality.”
Yet in both Canada and the US, botanicals are classed as dietary supplements, not drugs, hence makers of such supplements cannot claim to treat or prevent disease or specify details on how to use their products. That leaves the onus on you, the consumer, to consult a health care practitioner to find out exactly what your own condition is and how a herbal remedy will affect it.
This is particularly important if you have serious allergies, are pregnant or nursing, or are taking other prescription drugs, supplements, or herbal or botanical products.
The internet is a huge and valuable source of information on herbal remedies, but there is also a lot of information that’s false, inaccurate, or misleading. How do you separate the good from the bad? Some red flags to watch out for are the term “secret formula” and claims that government or other scientists are trying to suppress what the website is offering. Promises of cures for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or AIDS should also be viewed with great suspicion, as should anything that sounds too good to be true, because likely it will be.
The herbalist will see you now
The best course of action if you want to try alternative remedies but aren’t sure where to begin is to find a reputable herbalist. Herbalists aren’t regulated in Canada, but there are provincial associations that set minimal standards for education and practice.
As well, major cities are usually well served by natural health retailers and organic markets that include herbal remedy sections staffed by knowledgeable people.
“Always try to buy local,” says Gray. “I think it’s best to use herbs from as close to home as possible. There are so many people across the country who have small herbal businesses, who are wild-harvesting commercially and are doing it sustainably. Look for wild-grown herbs.”
Says Capranos: “Herbs, particularly those sold commercially, have a remarkably safe track record. Taken regularly, most herbs have a mild tonic effect.”
They’re best when used appropriately, she says, by matching the specific herb to a specific person. “Because herbs or herbal formulas are now commercialized, people may be taking a formula that isn’t quite the right fit for their body or condition. This will not necessarily be harmful … Negative side effects are rare with herbs. That said, a real caution is drug-herb interactions. This is where it’s imperative to consult a qualified [health care] practitioner if you are on medication.”
Government regulations protect consumers
You can identify products that have been authorized for sale in Canada by looking for the eight-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label. An NPN or DIN-HM means that the product can be legally sold in Canada and is safe and effective when used according to the instructions on the label.
Regulations differ in the US, where supplements are classified under the category of food. Manufacturers have been responsible for self-regulating their products since 1994 to determine if they are safe for consumers. Some American products are not available in Canada because they aren’t subject to mandatory review, approval, or quality requirements, and do not go through testing for identity, purity, or potency of active ingredients.
Find your own
That brings us back to the many plants—including those pesky weeds—right outside our door, ready for foraging and use in basic herbal remedies. Before you start foraging, check out your local Native Plant Society for information on edible local plants and foraging tips.
“Even in an urban setting, there are lots of wild plants,” says Gray. “Take the dandelion. It’s the most intelligent plant on earth. It can grow just about anywhere, and it’s a top herbal remedy. The root can be dried and ground up to drink as a tea. It helps detoxify the body. The young leaves in spring are full of electrolytes, sodium, and potassium. Put them in salads, stir-fries, or soups. The whole plant is a tonic, gently detoxifying and making you feel better.”
Be sure to avoid plants that have been sprayed with toxic chemicals. Learn about and apply sustainable harvesting practices before heading out to forage.
Seeds for health and healing
Sacred Seeds is an international nonprofit organization that supports plant conservation and addresses the rapid loss of biodiversity and cultural knowledge, particularly in areas where people depend on local plants for health and healing.
It is managed by the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the world’s leaders in medicinal plant research and a foundational garden in the Sacred Seeds stable.
The first Sacred Seeds sanctuary garden was established at Finca Luna Nueva, an organic and biodynamic farm, rainforest education centre, and eco-lodge in Costa Rica. Other gardens have been established around the world including India, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru, Madagascar, Cambodia, Israel, Uganda, Nigeria, Australia, the Republic of Georgia, and, most recently, in the Loire Valley of France.
Infused with knowledge
Here’s a brief glossary of terms used when dealing with herbal remedies.
Infusion: Boiling water is poured over dried flowers, fruit, leaves, and other plant parts to make a tea. Cold infusions may also be made.
Decoction: Plant materials, including the bark, rhizomes, roots, or other woody parts, are boiled in water to make a tea. A decoction is generally more potent than an infusion.
Tincture: Herbs are soaked in a dark place in glycerine, alcohol, or vinegar for two to six weeks, then the tincture is strained from the plant material.
Essential oils: These highly concentrated aromatic volatile oils are extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, and other parts of plants. They’re usually diluted before use.
Herbal infused oils: Volatile oils are extracted from plants by soaking them in a carrier oil for approximately two weeks and then straining the oil before use.
Creams and salves: Herbs and medicinal properties are mixed in a water-based preparation to make a cream, which allows for absorption from the surface of the skin. A salve is an ointment made from a heated mixture of oil and beeswax; it lasts longer on the skin than a water-based cream.
Technically known as cannabis, marijuana has been used medicinally for centuries in other parts of the world. Not until the last decade have North American health researchers begun to focus on the healing aspects of cannabis.
Research shows the drug does have a number of positive impacts, primarily for glaucoma, cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis patients. In particular, cannabis has been found to
- reduce muscle spasms
- provide relief from chronic pain and nerve pain
- lessen the frequency of seizures
- relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy
- increase appetite
Up in smoke
Smoking cannabis has been found to deliver an immediate dose of its active ingredients, including THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), but there are hazards with smoking, which creates carbon monoxide. Creating vapour by heating the cannabis is less hazardous than smoking and delivers the same quick dose. Cannabis is also available in pill form, but pills take longer to have an effect than either smoking or vapour. Research and development is ongoing into how to deliver the active ingredients in the safest form.