Herbal medicine, botanical medicine, or phytotherapy are terms used to describe the science of using plant-based materials to treat specific symptoms or diseases. The term covers everything from medicinal plants with extremely powerful actions like digitalis (Digitalis lanata and Digitalis purpura) to those with mild actions like peppermint (Metha x piperita). Babylon (ca. 2600 B.C.), often thought of as the cradle of civilization, provides the earliest known record of medicinal plant use. Medical texts on clay tablets have recorded symptoms of illness and recommended prescriptions of plants like cedar, cypress, myrrh and licorice for use. These formulations spread from the Tigris and Euphrates basins and influenced botanical pharmacy for many centuries. Later Galen (130-200 A.D.), physician to Marcus Aurelius in Rome, developed elaborate compounding formulas which used substances like opium, hyocyamus, and grape juice.
These ideas for mixing, extracting and refining combination drugs carried over into the eighteenth century and have their counterparts in compounding done in todays retail pharmacies. Through time, the isolation of specific chemical compounds changed mans relationship to the use of medicinal plants and their value. In olden times, plants were valued for the many compounds contained in the entire plant.
As it became easier to isolate specific compounds from botanical sources less emphasis was placed on the medicinal use of the plants as a whole. Instead, pharmacists, physicians and chemists in the Western world directed their efforts towards producing active principles from plants which could be studied in the same way as clearly definable chemical compounds. In this manner the mode of action of many old medicinal plants was learned. One of the first examples of this was in 1816 when Friedrich Wilhelm Serturner, a young German apothecary, was able to isolate morphine a wonderful pain killer from the opium plant (Papaver somniferum) which had been used for centuries in China, Europe and Persia.
Around the end of the second world war, the field of chemistry made exponential advances in the ability to isolate and synthesize single plant compounds. Use of plants for medicinal purposes based on long-standing empirical medical experience came to be considered old fashioned. Simple herbal remedies became forgotten. As time passed, medical schools ceased to include much about herbal preparations in their pharmaceutical curricula. A small group of healthcare practitioners retained the use of whole plants and plant extracts in their practices. Practitioners included in this group were herbalists, naturopaths, eclectic physicians and traditional healers (Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine etc).
Beginning in the 1960s, there was a resurgence of interest in the use of whole plant parts for medicinal use in the U.S. Much of this interest was derived from enormous consumer interest. Today billions of dollars are spent over the counter on herbal products. Clinical studies demonstrating the effectiveness of these products have been produced but mostly outside of the U.S. The bulk of many clinical studies have occurred in Asia and Europe. With the formation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine opportunities to evaluate botanical preparations in larger studies are developing and academic centers in the U.S. are participating in increasing numbers.
The Continuum Center for Health and Healing is committed to participating in this effort as well. Many of the faculty have been teaching medical residents and physicians about the use of medicinal plants in medical practice in various courses and seminars.