Herbal Medicine is the oldest form of medicine known to mankind. It was the mainstay of many early civilisations and still the most widely practised form of medicine in the world today (according to World Health Organization figures).

Herbs have played an important part in our development. It provided us with food, medicine and cosmetics. I strongly believe that, there is a remedy somewhere in nature for every illness. Today approximately 25% of all prescription drugs are derived from trees, shrubs or herbs. Digitalis is extracted from the leaves of foxglove, morphine and codeine are derived from the opium poppy, quinine from cinchona bark etc. The essential difference between herbalism and conventional medicine is that, while in conventional medicine the most active constituent is extracted from the plant and then synthesized in the laboratory to make the drug, in herbal medicine extracts from the whole plant are used.

The herbalist believes that the sum of the action of the whole plant is more balanced than that of any one of its main constituents. Where the action of the active component is very powerful, the other constituents within the plant will limit it; where the active constituent is less powerful, other constituents will increase its effectiveness, or ensure that it reaches the part of the body that requires treatment. Due to this, and also because herbal medicines consists of natural plant material and not a synthesized chemical, herbal remedies are less likely to cause unpleasant side effects than orthodox drugs. However, it should be borne in mind that plant remedies are very powerful and can be dangerous if prescribed dosages are exceeded. Some plant phytochemicals are toxic; pyrrolizidine alkaloids are hepatotoxic and large doses can cause convulsions and rapid death. These alkaloids can be found in plants like ragwort, bush teas from crotalaria species and comfrey (Symphytum officinale).

Herbal remedies should not be taken alongside conventional drugs or in pregnancy without consulting a qualified herbal practitioner or your doctor.

All herbal remedies are derived from plants. They can be given internally as:

Herbal medicines can also be administered externally, as ointments and poultices.

Medicinal plants can contain a variety of phytochemicals as well as minerals, vitamins and trace elements. Some of the phytochemicals are pharmacologically active and can exert a therapeutic action on the body. Plants with different properties are combined in a prescription tailored to the individual after taking a complete history and thorough physical examination from the patient to identify the problem. Herbal treatment is accompanied with advice on diet, exercise and any lifestyle changes that could possibly help to alleviate the condition.

Georges-Louis Friedli,PgDip., MSc., PhD.