Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Herbs have been used as medicine for over 3,000 years, and they continue to be the primary source of health care for at least 70% of the world. Yet the responses I get when I tell someone I'm an herbalist makes me chuckle. Some people want to talk for an hour about their conditions - all of them. Others quickly move on to another conversation. Then there are the hesitant nods and looks of sympathy for being so gullible, and once someone asked if I have another job.
There are so many different thoughts and feelings about herbs, often based on experiences, others' opinions, and how we see the world. I've found that most people want more information, so here are five questions I get often and a few answers I hope will be helpful to you.
1. What are herbs?
The botanical definition of an herb is any seed-bearing plant that does not have a woody stem and dies after flowering. In western herbalism and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the term "herbs" refers to plants or parts of them, including grasses, flowers, berries, seeds, leaves, nuts, stems, stalks, and roots used for their therapeutic and health benefits.
2. What are herbal remedies?
Herbal remedies use plants to help the body return to a state of balance and heal itself naturally. Whole plants or parts of them are used in different ways to correct the underlying condition, not just the symptoms.
3. Are herbs safe?
So are, and some aren't. When safe herbs are taken in appropriate dosages, they are proven safer than modern medicines. According to the article "Herbal versus synthetic drugs; beliefs and facts" published in 2015 in the Journal of Nephropharmacology, "About 8% of hospital admissions in the United States of America are due to adverse or side effects of synthetic drugs (1). Approximately 100,000 people each year die due to toxicities." Yet, deaths or hospitalizations due to herbs are so rare that the National Poison Control Centres of the United States does not have a category in their database for side for adverse reactions to herbs.
4. How are herbs different from modern medicine?
Medicinal herbs have active compounds that have been studied and isolated to create modern medicines. Aspirin was derived from willow bark, digoxin from foxglove, and morphine from the opium poppy. However, the plant's excluded parts often contain essential nutrients and other beneficial substances that help prevent side effects. When herbs are correctly identified and cultivated, they are proven to be safer than other medicines.
5. Are herbs effective?
Well, that depends on how you define effective.
If effectiveness is defined by the results of randomized, placebo-controlled, and double-blind clinical trials, then for the most part the answer is no. Some herbs such as chamomile, ginseng, and goldenseal are sci
entifically proven to be effective for specific uses. However, these studies are extremely expensive. These studies are typically paid for by large corporations, and there isn't a financial incentive to do this research because you can't patent an herb.
is defined by the impact herbs have had around the world for centuries, then they are very effective. For centuries using plant medicine (sometimes called traditional medicine) is the difference between life and death. The majority of the world still relies on it. Even in industrialized countries, folk remedies are used to treat illness. An estimated 70% of all medical doctors in France and Germany regularly prescribe herbal medicine. In China, traditional herbal medicine amounts to about 30%–50% of the total drug consumption.
In fact, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology in China, more than 85% of all coronavirus patients in China -- about 60,000 people -- had received herbal remedies alongside mainstream antiviral drugs. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/14/asia/coronavirus-traditional-chinese-medicine-intl-hnk/index.html
Finally, if effectiveness is defined by your family, your, or your friend's experience, then the answer is most likely yes. Whether using peppermint or ginger to help with an upset stomach, or eucalyptus break up chest congestion (think vapor rubs), or chamomile or lavender for sleep, at some you've experienced or heard about the benefits of plant medicine.
Although I've worked with herbs for years, I'm still in awe every time someone experiences relief from them. After all, they are just simple plants and flowers. Powerfully beautiful. That's what I love about them.
Kim is the founder of Eden's Leaves, a company that provides herbal products and information so people She makes herbal remedies for family and friends and is a life-long student and admirer of herbs. Kim lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.