The medicinal benefits of herbs have been known for centuries. Records of Native American, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, and Hebrew medical practices show that herbs were used extensively to treat practically every known illness.

Many herbs contain powerful ingredients that, if used correctly, can help heal the body. The pharmaceutical industry was originally based upon the ability to isolate these ingredients and make them available in a purer form. Herbalists, however, contend that nature provides other ingredients in the same herbs to balance the more powerful ingredients.

These other components, though they may be less potent, may help to act as buffers, synergists, or counterbalances working in harmony with the more powerful ingredients. Therefore, when you use herbs in their complete form, your body’s healing process utilizes a balance of ingredients provided by nature.

In the United States, herbal remedies were used widely until the early 1900s, when what was to become the modern pharmaceutical industry began isolating individual active compounds and producing drugs based on them. American medicine became almost exclusively committed to a medical system some practitioners call allopathy, which seeks to treat illness by producing a condition in the body that does not allow the disease to live or thrive. Over the years, most Americans have become conditioned to rely on synthetic, commercial drugs for relief.

Today, however, scientists are taking a second look at herbal remedies. Particularly in the past twenty years, a growing body of research (much of it done in Europe) has pointed to the therapeutic potential of numerous herbs. But a lot of work remains to be done; only about 15 percent of the estimated plant species on earth have been investigated for possible medicinal uses.

Today’s renewed interest in herbs reflects increasing concern about the side effects of powerful synthetic drugs, as well as the desire of many people to take charge of their own health, rather than merely submitting themselves to a sometimes impersonal health care system. We are also re-discovering the healthful benefits of tasty herbs for cooking and aromatic herbs for enhancing and helping to balance mental, spiritual, and physical health.

Nature’s pharmacy is an abundant one. Many herbs are rich in compounds that have a beneficial effect on certain tissues and organs, and, therefore, can be used as medicines to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Herbal remedies can help nourish your immune system, stimulate the regeneration of damaged liver tissue, build the strength of the adrenal glands, counter the adverse side effects of chemotherapy, balance the endocrine system, stimulate milk production, and improve night vision, among other things.

Generally, medicinal herbs fall into two basic categories: tonic and stimulating.

Tonics help cells, tissues, and organs to maintain tone, or balance, throughout the body. Some tonics activate and invigorate bodily processes or parts. Other tonics supply important nutrients that cells, tissues, and organs need to function properly. Tonics ordinarily are taken regularly for three to nine months at a time to gently strengthen and improve overall health and/or certain organ functions.

Stimulating herbs have much stronger actions and are used to treat particular ailments. They should be taken in smaller doses than tonic herbs, and for shorter periods of time.

Ancient cultures had no idea why herbs worked they simply knew that certain plants produced certain desired results.

Only in the last hundred years or so have chemists and pharmacists been isolating and purifying the beneficial chemical compounds in plants to produce reliable pharmaceutical drugs. About 25 percent of the prescription medicines sold today are (or were originally) derived from plants. For example:

Morphine and codeine come from the opium poppy.

Aspirin originated from willow bark.

Digitalis, a heart muscle strengthener, is derived from the foxglove plant.
Paclitaxel (Taxol), used in cancer chemotherapy, comes from the Pacific yew tree.

Phytomedicine, a recently coined term, refers to an herbal medicine that is a whole-plant preparation, rather than a single isolated chemical compound. (The prefix phyto comes from the Greek word phyton, meaning “plant.”) The herbal preparation derived from a whole plant or plant part is considered the active entity, even though it may actually contain hundreds of individual active components. Phytomedicines are standardized, however that is, they contain set percentages of specified active components and their therapeutic values are backed by pharmacological and clinical studies and experience.

Phytomedicines are widely recognized in Europe, where they are categorized as plant-derived drugs. In Germany for example, phytomedicines are considered “ethical drugs,” and physicians prescribe them and pharmacists dispense them. In the United States, phytomedicines are sold as over-the-counter dietary supplements in health food stores and in some pharmacies. A few mainstream doctors, however, have begun prescribing herbal remedies along with standard drugs. Some health insurance companies cover the cost of herbal medicines when they are prescribed by health care professionals. The Office of Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding research on herbal remedies. According to an article published in USA Today, nearly 50 million Americans regularly use herbal supplements.

Herbal supplements are not subject to the same standards as are prescription and over-the-counter drugs. This is one of the main criticisms of this type of supplement. Some manufacturers of herbals have been attempting to obtain a kind of certification by using private sector groups, such as the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) (http://www.usp .org) to create testing programs and certify their products. For instance, the certifications could include:

Quality standards.
Label accuracy.
Purity standards.
Manufacturing and packaging standards.

This certification does not guarantee that the product works as claimed or that it is safe for everyone to use. However, any manufacturer that has gone to the trouble and expense to get a certification is certainly heading in the right direction. As more manufacturers get “on board,” some of the mystery and hype might be removed from the marketplace.