ecomii - a better way
April 21, 2018  |  Login
By James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Herbal medicine is the oldest therapy in world history, predating by tens of thousands of years the rich herbal remedies of ancient China, India, and Egypt. Herbs have been found in archaeological explorations in the most ancient of civilizations.

Much later on, around 400 b.c., the Greeks began to systematize and codify medical principles. Hippocrates, whom we recognize as the father of Western medicine, and the doctors who followed him, believed that there were four basic types of body fluids and that health was maintained by keeping each of these types in its proper balance. They relied upon herbs such as rosemary, fennel, and saffron, in conjunction with exercise, massage, and other gentle therapies, not just to treat the symptoms of an illness, but to stimulate a personinner healing powers and to bring the unbalanced fluid back to its appropriate level.

Roman physicians took their cues from the Greeks. Before Roman soldiers went into battle, doctors painted the soles of the soldiers' feet with garlic oil as a way of stimulating the immune system in case of injury and promoting quick healing. One doctor, Dioscorides, detailed four hundred herbal remedies in his work De Materia Medica. Another doctor, Galen, expanded upon the body-fluid theories of the Greeks and further encouraged the idea of health as a matter of balance.

As the Romans conquered most of the Middle East and Europe (thanks to the garlic, no doubt), they brought their doctors, their medical treatises, and their remedies with them. By the time the Roman Empire fell, an herbal healing system had been firmly established throughout the continent. Garlic was recognized as an effective guard against colds and fever, and peppermint was widely known to encourage good digestion. Europeans knew that basil eased their cramps and that parsley acted as a diuretic. More important than the use of any one herb was the idea that plants in general were agents that, with the proper application, could be used to stimulate the body's natural healing response.

But by the medieval era, European medical practice had grown much more aggressive and invasive. Doctors began to rely upon emetics and purgatives for treating most illnesses-strategies that probably killed more patients than healed them. Worse, these doctors began to attack the local healers who used herbs. It's now thought that the witch hunts of early modern Europe were really ways for the medical establishment to remove the women who had knowledge of herbs and healing from their positions of power within the villages.

One fifteenth-century physician, Paracelsus, was so disgusted by the state of medical practice that he devoted his career to gentle, natural herbal therapies. He not only studied European sources, but also took care to include the considerable work of Middle Eastern herbalists. He learned which herbs could cure disease, and he taught other physicians that foods and herbs contained energy that could be absorbed and utilized by the body. Paracelsus didn't have everything right-he believed that a plant's shape was indicative of the part of the body it could cure-but he was a strong, credible voice that brought serious attention back to herbal treatment.

Since the time of Paracelsus, European medicine has been a battle between the holistic philosophy of herbalism and an increasingly mechanized view of the body. And as Europeans began to explore and colonize, this battleground spread to North America, where Native Americans had been using herbal remedies for centuries, if not millennia. Nevertheless, herbalism remained an important and respected tradition in Europe, as well as in America, up through the early 1900s.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, herbal remedies were almost completely eclipsed by the development of synthetic "wonder drugs." Scientists learned how to isolate the active ingredients in herbs and patent them as medications like morphine and aspirin. Pharmaceutical companies made huge profits from the sales of their products and used the money in part to fund medical schools that shunned teaching herbalism. more

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