History of Herbalism and Holistic Medicine
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History of Herbalism and Holistic Medicine

The use of plants as medicines dates as far back as the origin of humankind. Even carnivorous animals are known to consume plants when ill. (A Jaguar for example, will eat leaves after grooming as a remedy against furballs. Everyone has seen a dog or cat eat grass, which they may do to relieve gastric distress or to dislodge parasites.) People have relied primarily on plants for nourishment. Through trial and error they discovered that some plants are good for food, that some are poisonous, and that some produce bodily changes such as increased perspiration, bowel movement, urination, relief of pain, hallucination, and healing. Over the millennia these observations were passed orally from generation to generation, with each generation adding to and refining the body of knowledge. Every culture the world over has in this manner developed a body of herbal knowledge as part of its tradition.

The first written record of herbs used as medicines was made over five thousands years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerian prescriptions for healing using herbs such as caraway and thyme have been found by archeologists on tablets made of clay. At about the same time, and perhaps even earlier, herbal traditions were being developed in China and India.

The roots of Chinese medicine, which is based largely on herbalism, also date back approximately 5,000 years. The Chinese emperor Chi'en Nung put together a book of medicinal plants (an "herbal") called Pen Tsao. It contained over 300 herbs including ma huang, or Chinese ephedra, which is still widely used today and is the herb from which Western scientists have derived the drug ephedrine.

The roots of Indian medicine were set forth in the sacred writings called the Vedas, which date back as far as the 2nd century BC. The Indian system of medicine was called the Ayurveda. The Indian materia medica, or list of herbs used as medicines, was quite extensive. As early as 800 BC one Indian writer knew 500 medicinal plants and another knew 760—all indigenous plants of India. Indian herbalism or Ayurveda is still practiced today, and many authentic, traditional formulations are available outside of India.

Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine.” wrote, The Complicated Body, which included many medical theories that we hold true to this day. He used many herbal remedies in his practice and wrote the famous words “let your foods be your medicines, and your medicines your food.” In his writings, he preserved the medical practices of the Greeks and Romans. He incidentally wrote about the medicinal properties of willow bark and how it could be used for fevers and pain. During the 1800’s, scientists began synthesizing active compounds from willow to make aspirin. Doctors today still take the Hippocratic Oath upon completion of their medical degrees.

When the Europeans first came to American, they discovered that the Native Americans had extensive knowledge of the herbs which grew on their continent. The healing tradition of the Native Americans was based on a belief in an unseen spirit world. This type of tradition is sometimes referred to as shamanism, with the healer referred to as a shaman. But many Native Americans object to this terminology, which originated in Asia, prefering medicine man instead. The European settlers had great respect for the herbal wisdom of the American Indians and relied heavily upon their knowledge. When Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition Westward from the Mississippi River, one of their goals was to learn as much as possible from the Native Americans about their beneficial herbs.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the great age of Herbalism began to boom as Herbal books were just becoming available in English rather than in Latin or Greek. The first anonymous herbal book to be published in English was Grete Herball of 1526.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), an herbalist, botanist, physician, and astrologer, published a most extensive herbal on pharmaceuticals, herbal knowledge, and the practice of astrological medicine. Culpeper spent a great amount of time outdoors and cataloged hundreds of medicinal herbs. He was the people’s herbalist as, even though he was being scorned by his peers and colleagues in the medical community, he sought to bring medicine to the poor and to make medical information available to all. And in the latter half of the 19th century, a group of physicians known as the Eclectics, combined botanical medicines with other substances and therapies to treat their patients. They integrated and employed many forms of treatment that were more innovative and inclusive than the conventional medical treatments of the day.

And today, herbalism is once again gaining in popularity and being recognized and accepted in our expanding medical environment. This resurgence can be seen throughout our culture. New, wonderful books are being authored by herbalists that bring learning right into people’s hands. Herbal remedies are becoming common place in many grocery stores. And there are now many herbal schools offering education to budding herbalists.

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