Because of the high cost of doctors and medicine, numerous people turn to herbs and supplements to help stave off sickness and stay healthy. The medicinal use of herbs and plants isn’t new and can be traced to ancient times. But do they actually help? Are herbal supplements detrimental to your health? What are the pros and cons of herbal medicine? In this article, we will explore the benefits and downsides of this type of alternative medicine, a brief history of the ancient traditions to learn more about how plants and herbs are seen and used, and how our perspective of herbal medicine has changed over time.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Diving in, herbal medicine is an umbrella term used to describe plant-based remedies. Under this umbrella, you will find competing disciplines with each discipline presenting a different philosophy and practice. In this article, we will focus on three of them: Chinese Herbalism, Western Herbalism, and Ayurvedic Medicine.
Modern medicine can be considered herbal medicine in the broad sense of the word since many pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants and herbs. However, the main difference between synthetic medicine and herbal medicine is that the latter isn’t created in a lab.
Herbal medicine uses raw plant material to treat varying ailments like high blood pressure, inflammation, erectile dysfunction, and more. In recent times, doctors seem to have caught on to the benefits of herbal supplements to help people with minor ailments. In some cases, traditional doctors may suggest patients use certain supplements or herbs in lieu of strong prescription medication.
Types of Herbal Medicine
There are three major schools of herbalism: Chinese, Ayurveda, and Western Herbalism. Each branch brings its own unique perspective on how herbs should be utilized. Each branch has its own philosophy which describes how the body works and how to keep it healthy. Although some of the philosophical teachings may be opaque and mystical, they all have one thing in common: they believe herbs can help treat sickness. Let’s dig into each philosophy to see what each branch has to offer.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is heavily rooted in Taoism, a belief which emphasizes for people to live in harmony with nature. In regards to health, Chinese herbalists see the organs as interconnected. Organs rely on each other to function properly. When a person is sick, their organs need to be restored into balance. The vital energy force Chi is used to help explain sickness. Chi flows through special pathways in the body. When a pathway is blocked, a person can fall ill.
Acupuncture, Tai Chi, and Chinese Herbal Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine encompasses three main categories: Acupuncture, Tai Chi, and Chinese Herbal Medicine. All three of these approaches are used to treat specific health ailments. Acupuncture and Tai Chi are used to treat pain and inflammation, and Chinese herbs are used for an assortment of ailments.
Other methods Chinese medicine employs include:
- Tuina: an approach that combines massage and acupuncture.
- Moxibustion: burning herbs near the skin to warm acupuncture points.
- Acupressure: finger pressure is applied to acupuncture points.
There are many herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. However, some of the most common ones are as follows:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Red yeast rice
- Gotu kola
Finding Chi Blockages
During a typical examination, a Chinese Medicine practitioner will assess your health by checking your pulse, your tongue, and conduct a physical exam to identify Chi blockages.
A practitioner identifies Chi imbalances looking for these particular symptoms:
Liver Stagnation: Liver regulates the flow of Chi. When someone is irritable, angry, depressed and suffers from indigestion and “wiry” pulse, it means their liver Chi blocked.
Kidney Deficiency: When someone suffers from hot flashes, dry mouth, a “floating” pulse, or forgetfulness, a person might have Chi blockage in their kidney.
Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient holistic medical system founded in India which dates back to 3,000 years. Ayurveda literally means “Knowledge of Life” in Sanskrit and is not only a philosophy of medicine but a lifestyle, too.
The practitioners of Ayurveda believe that wellness depends on a balance between the mind, body, and spirit. To help people find their balance, they categorize people using special archetypes. Depending on your personality type, you will be told to go on a certain type of diet or live a certain type of lifestyle to help reverse any imbalances.
The Three Ayurvedic Archetypes
Ayurveda groups the five elements (air, fire, earth, ether, and water) into three archetypes which they claim are present in everybody:
Vata — Air and Space — These types are energetic and creative. They need warm food and a regular routine to stay in balance.
Pitta — Fire and Water — These types are determined and strong-willed. They need to eat fruits, veggies, whole grains and need plenty of fresh air to stay in balance.
Kapha — Water and Earth — These types have good endurance, strength, and stamina. In order to stay healthy, this type needs to eat a lot of vegetables and exercise frequently. They also need lots of excitement in their life to help them stay in balance.
Knowing your dosha can help you understand what food and lifestyle habits aid you and which imbalance you. Many people are a combination of two doshas and if you want to know which one applies to you, seeing an Ayurvedic doctor will help you determine that.
There are many ayurvedic remedies to choose from. The most common remedies include:
- Fennel seeds, holy basil, and other spices which can help with acid reflux.
- Water, fennel seeds and ginger which work great for bloating.
- Turmeric, for treating inflammation
- Shilajit resin which is good for heart health, fatigue, anaemia, and brain function.
Many ayurvedic remedies include superfoods which are very nutritious and boost overall health. The main seven superfoods include ginger, ashwagandha root, amla, turmeric, tulsi, shilajit, and brahmi.
Western Herbal Medicine originated in ancient Greece and Rome and similarly to Ayurveda and Chinese Herbalism, it seeks to balance the body to keep it healthy through diet, exercise, a positive mindset, rest, and water.
In fact, Western Herbal Medicine even shares some similar approaches to Chinese Herbalism (acupuncture and massage therapy) and Ayurveda because Western Herbalism is influenced by both of these schools of thought. However, these beliefs are filtered through a western perspective and a lot of the metaphorical and symbolic features are stripped away for a more modern approach. Philosophically, they approach herbalism through the scientific method. This way Western herbalism can utilize research to go along with their medical claims.
Pros of Herbal Medicine
Because there is less bureaucracy governing the sale of supplements, herbal medicine tends to be more affordable than modern medicine. You don’t have to deal with insurance, wait times, a doctor, and all that typical mumbo jumbo. Herbal supplements are easy to find, too. You can find them at your local store and even through the internet. The cost can vary by brand but the price range is typically less than 30 dollars for a month’s worth of supplements.
Herbal supplements are created from organic plant life. When properly sourced, supplements don’t contain additives, synthetic chemicals, or anything that a synthetic drug might have. Supplements are derived straight from the plant. Since supplements tend to contain no additives, there are little to no long term effects when used as intended.
Fewer Side Effects
Since natural herbal supplements tend to have no fillers and contain only active ingredients, they tend to have fewer side effects than regular prescription medication. As long as you do not overuse them, herbal supplements are a great source for wellness.
Because of the growing use for herbal remedies and supplements, more and more research is being done to understand how exactly they work, what effects they have, and if they are beneficial at all. Research shows that certain supplements and herbs do have medical applications:
Peppermint — Helps digestion and reduces headaches
Cinnamon — Promotes blood circulation and helps regulate blood sugar
Chamomile — Contains anti-inflammatory antioxidants, promotes relaxation.
Gingko — Promotes brain health, blood circulation, and reduces inflammation
Turmeric — Anti-Inflammatory
Tea Tree Oil — Antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory
Green Tea — The chemical compound l-theanine found in green tea is known to naturally lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and increase focus.
Research in natural remedies is growing, so the distinction between real remedies and snake oil remedies is more obvious than ever.
Cons of Herbal Medicine
It’s important to buy herbal supplements from a trusted source and it’s important to stay away from imported products since they are not regulated. Unsavoury merchants may add dangerous additives which can cause adverse reactions — even death. Other merchants might lie and fill a supplement with useless fillers so they might not even work at all.
If you’re taking any prescription drugs, it’s important to let your doctor or a medical professional know before you begin any supplement regimen. Some supplements and herbs can reduce a prescription drug’s effectiveness. Sometimes they can even intensify the drug causing health issues like blood thinning, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, and more.
Some supplements may contain allergens, so it’s important to know what they contain before you begin to use them. If you’re not sure, start with a small amount to see if you develop any type of reaction, but only do so if it’s cleared by a medical professional.
If you’re using herbs dosing can be tricky. Because of the lack of regulation, supplement dosage can be misleading. If you’re ingesting raw herbs like ginger, soy, or ginseng, exact dosing can be nearly impossible. It’s important to research and talk to a medical professional or trustworthy expert to help educate you on safe dosage.
Herbal supplements and natural remedies can be handy to anyone who’s willing to try them. Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to ingesting supplements and herbs. For most, the pros outweigh the cons. When you have the knowledge to discern from good herbal remedies from bad ones, you really have nothing to worry about. However, it’s important to understand the risks to discern which herbal remedies are worth taking. Expert help and research is critical for making such decisions.
Alternative medicine is here to stay. For those who are open-minded and want to know what all their health options are, being informed is important. If you’re curious about alternative medicine, speak to your doctor or health care professional before taking any over the counter remedies especially if you suffer from a pre-existing condition.
Polly Tlg has always been interested in holistic and alternative ways of healing. Ayurveda and yoga are the best medicines for her. Deeply intuitive she finds that true healing surpasses the boundaries of the physical body and embraces the emotional, energetic and subtlest layers of our being. Polly helps people to know how to be healthy and beautiful using only natural remedies. She believes that nature is the best source of human health.