Herbology is the science of the use of herbs and plants for medicinal purpose. It probably is as ancient as an existence of humans on this planet. The first written records are over 5,000 years: Sumerians, created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium). In India, Ayurvedic medicine has used many herbs including turmeric possibly as early as 1900 BC. Sushruta in the sixth century BC describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources. In Egypt (1500 BC) we find that herbology was highly advanced with knowledge of medicinal characteristics of over 850 plant, including garlic, sage, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake.
In China The Shennong Ben Cao Jing lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses long before 5th century BC – including ephedra, hemp, and chaulmoogra used (for leprosy).Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.
Baghdad was an important center for Arab herbalism, as was Al-Andalus between 800 and 1400. Abulcasis (936-1013) of Cordoba wrote The Book of Simples, Ibn al-Baitar (1197–1248) of Málaga wrote the Corpus of Simples, the most complete Arab herbal which introduced 200 new healing herbs, including tamarind, Aconitum, and nux vomica.
Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) lists 800 tested drugs, plants and minerals with specific guides of use in diseases and a discussion of the healing properties of herbs, including nutmeg, senna, sandalwood, rhubarb, myrrh, cinnamon, and rosewater. Other early pharmacopoeias include Abu-Rayhan Biruni in the eleventh century, Ibn Zuhr in the twelfth century, Peter of Spain’s Commentary on Isaac, and John of St Amand’s Commentary on the Antedotary of Nicholas.
Herbs were extensively used in folk medicine and shamanic practices around the world with the knowledge deep and extensive, carried on from generation to generation by only special “wise” healers and tribal leaders.
Among the 120 active compounds currently isolated from the higher plants and widely used in modern medicine today, 80 percent show a positive correlation between their modern therapeutic use and the traditional use of the plants from which they are derived.
Unfortunately, once isolated from the plant, pharmacological substance becomes a completely different entity and is NOT an herbal tincture anymore. While Mother Nature once combined together those wonder remedies and packed them inside the plants, modern science is taking them apart and creating “smarter” pills. We must understand that there are limitations of such approach, and I take these attempts of “outsmarting” nature with a grain of salt. I am sad to read latest research articles that fail to demonstrate the usefulness of plants – indeed, it is virtually impossible to demonstrate claimed medicinal effects of a plant when it is virtually destroyed by artificial chemical separation of it’s compounds. Most of these studies use plain “bench research” approach: single compound isolated by chemical reaction then are used to treat artificial cell culture (not the body!) in the Perti dish, or such compound is given or applied to a mouse. While it is good to know what chemical compounds are present in the plant, this knowledge has absolutely nothing to do with herbal tinctures and potions that are known for healing properties. Well, in my mind it is similar to trying to explain a beauty of Renessance architecture by breaking these buildings to bricks…
While working at NIH I was asked to consult the group from National Institute of Integrative Medicine on one of the studies that they were performing on garlic. The group decided to use commercial preparation of dry garlic extract to demonstrate antiviral properties. I explained that the study will fail for sure – the fresh juice or fresh garlic clove is used in herbal medicine to produce such effect! The researcher ignored my precautions and later released the study with the claim that garlic does not work as antiviral remedy. What a shame! Such studies in my opinion favor pharmaceutical companies and promote use of drugs.
The modern medications packed in tablets are very different in action from herbal remedies, as they are not connected with other constituents of the plant – now they become completely different entities with the new properties. Once artificially isolated, the compound has absolutely different bioavailability, action and side effects then the plant itself. While enhanced action can produce the desired effect with much higher power and precision, it also can cause more significant bad actions (side effects) in the body.
Modern industry also created another harmful phenomenon: shelves of poorly made, awfully packaged herbs and dietary aids that are claimed to be “alternative supplements”.
Many are dangerous due to toxic additives and inappropriate preparation. People are left on their own trying to sort between something they know should be “good for you” and a total rip-off by the companies packing talcum in the capsules that are sold with various names of goodness – vit C, Echinacea, Ginseng. While counterfeiting is punishable by law for medicines, there is no such law for supplements as there is no control of manufacturing. A 2013 study published in the journal BMC Medicine found that one-third of herbal supplements sampled contained no trace of the herb listed on the label. The study found products adulterated with filler including allergens such as soy, wheat, and black walnut. One bottle labeled as St. John’s Wort was found to actually contain Alexandrian senna, a laxative. The New York times