The Science of Plant Medicine
Phytotherapy is the scientific term for plant medicine (Herbal Medicine), or the study of using plant-derived extracts as medicines or health-promoting substances. The history of Herbalism is vast and diverse. Humans have been using plants as medicine since the beginning of time, and science has helped us understand the mechanism behind the medicinal use of barks, seeds, leaves, flowers, and fruits.
The earliest documentation of plant usage as medicine is 5,000 years old; whether these uses were discovered through instinct or trial-and-error during times of desperate struggles against illnesses, we may never know. That said, the proof is in the potion, and many ancient herbal formulas are still used today by modern herbalists.
Contemporary science has legitimized many traditional herbal medicines and acknowledged the active action of plant constituents. For modern herbalists it is necessary that the science behind the plant action is understood. Herbs are a complex mix of phytochemicals, multiple compounds that work together in synergy.
Being knowledgeable about the chemical composition of plant parts gives practitioners a pathway to link curative or symptom-relief plant medicines with disfunction in the body.
The chemicals in herbs are complementary to our physiology, as we co-evolved to the same external stressors. Just like our hormones, immune systems, and microbiomes have adapted over time to the environment, the phytochemicals in plants have evolved as products of the plant's self-protective mechanism against environmental stressors.
For example, phytoestrogens exist in plants to help them grow; anti-oxidants to help prevent cell damage; and antimicrobials to defend against disease-causing microbes. These phytochemicals also help support and protect human body systems. And unlike pharmaceutical drugs, the plants usually work best as a whole, rather than broken down to a single chemical.
This allows for a holistic and gentle support of our body function, with less side effect and contra-indication.
There is still much scientific work to be done in the area of phytotherapy. Funding for plant-research is minimal, unless there is money to be gained, for example the sale of prepared herbal extracts by large companies or the conversion of plant parts into pharmaceutical medicine (modern pharmacology includes many drugs of plant origin). However, with prescription drugs being one of the leading causes of death in North America, efficacy of some synthetic drugs decreasing and contra-indications increasing, natural medicines are gaining popularity again.
Therefore, so is the research in this area. This is a good thing, because even though experienced herbalists may stand behind the traditional use of therapeutic herbs, simply knowing that something works because it is observed to work isn’t enough - Western Science of course relies heaving on written documentation based on scientific experiments.
Today, it is becoming more widely understood that herbs enhance physiological function, whereas most drugs challenge it.
With research, we have hindsight and science to back up and explain the restorative properties of herbs. Science has helped us understand much about body function and disease, and this understanding helps scientists and practitioners to find new ways to treat dis-ease (or support in understanding traditional ways). With the history of observation combined with modern science, it is becoming clearer just how beneficial plant medicine is to human health.
(*always consult a Medical Herbalist or Physician if you have any health conditions or are pregnant)
Lauren Truscott Waddell, RHT, CHHC
Picture credit: @photosbyashlenenairn