Mentha pipperita, "Peppermint"
Calming and uplifting for the mind;
calming, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic for the
Plant Medicine in History
Even the vast majority of modern pharmaceutical drugs used modifications of chemicals originally derived
from plant sources. In the case of modern drugs, however, these isolated chemicals are modified to permit
them to be patented, so that drug companies can have a monopoly on the profits from their use. The downside,
however, is that these isolated chemicals usually have a wide range of side effects and are far more
dangerous to use than the plants they were origianlly derived from.
Throughout human history, plants were the oldest known sources of our medicines as well as our food.
The earliest known writings still in existence, the Vedas from India, refer to the use of plants as
medicine. Plants with known medicinal properties have been found in tombs throughout the world, from
ancient Egypt, to India, China, South & North America as well as Europe. Otzi, the famed "Iceman Mummy"
discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and eventually dated to 5300 years ago, was carrying medicinal
herbs with him when he died. (As an aside, he also had tattoos on acupuncture points and meridians,
suggesting that early knowledge of the body's energy system existed outside the far east).
Forms of Herbal Medicines
Teas are made from dried plant parts, usually leaves or flowers, though
sometimes stalks, roots, nuts or fruits. Teas can be prepared as either an infusion, which consists
of steeping the herb
in hot water for 10-20 minutes, or as a decoction, which involves actively boiling the plant material
in water for 30 minutes or more. A general rule of thumb is that infusions are used for leaves and flowers,
while decoctions are needed for harder plant materials like roots, bark or nuts.
Powders are simply the same dried plant material you might use as a tea
finely ground into a powder. They are delivered in two basic methods: (1) by mixing the powder in a liquid,
such as water or juice, or (2) placing the powder into capsules. Powder capsules are generally considered
to be the weakest form of herbal medicines. Sometimes, powders are made by first producing a liquid extract
and then freeze-drying it, and grinding it into a powder.
Tinctures are a form of liquid extract, usually prepared by soaking the plant
material in a mixture of water and alcohol for at least 2 weeks, up to several months. The length of time
needed, and the relative proportions of water and alcohol will vary from plant to plant. By preparing the herbs as
tinctures, the combination of both water and alcohol permits the extraction of both water-soluble and fat-soluble
chemicals to be extracted from the plant material. The liquid form of these constituents is more easily
absorbed into the bloodstream than any other form of plant medicine. For this reason, tinctures are
generally considered to be the strongest form of plant medicine. Closely related to tinctures are something
called a solid extract, which essentially is a highly concentrated tincture. Both tinctures and
solid extracts are sometimes placed in gel caps, much like a typical Vitamin E capsule.
In most cases, the best way to use plants is when they are freshly harvested. When we all lived on farms
or other rural areas, this was easy to do; simply walk out your door, gather the plants you needed, and
make them into medicine. For most of us living in cities, however, this is no longer practical. Currently,
medicinal plants are available in several different preserved forms, each of which has its own strengths and
Biochemistry & Energetics: Western and Chinese Herbalism
The second major mechanism of action for herbal medicines is referred to as Energetic. This term is used to
describe repeatable effects of plants, for which there is no biochemical explanation. Two very similar
plants could have virtually identical chemical properties, and yet have radically different therapeutic
effects simply because they possess different energetic properties. Sometimes this belief in the chemical
properties is so strong that medicines have even been developed which test the medicine to measure the content
of particular chemicals which are believed to be the active ingredient. If this measurement shows that
the content of the desired chemical is too low, extra amounts of the chemical are added, to increase the
concentration. These are referred to as "Standardized" medicines, and have essentially become drugs.
Chinese Herbology is based on a knowledge of the energetic properties of herbs. They have been studied for
more than 5,000 years, and the various energetic properties of each plant are well documented.
Western herbalism, meanwhile, must be considered in two distinct phases of its history. Modern
herbalism is based primarily on biochemical knowledge, and plants might be selected for a therapeutic
situation based solely on the chemical content of the plant. Early, traditional Western herbalism,
meanwhile, relied more on Energetic properties. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge has been lost to time
due to the "tradition" of book burning that took place in early Europe.
In modern Naturopathic Medicine, it is generally believed that the process of producing standardized plant
medicines is less effective therapeutically, and in many cases can be dangerous, by producing unknown side
effects through the druglike action of the standardized chemicals. Instead, we rely on the knowledge
that Nature is generally far more complex and knowledgeable than we are; using the plants in their natural
form is safer and more effective. Plants contain thousands of chemicals, most of which have never been
studied by themselves. This combination of naturally occuring chemicals produces synergistic and supportive
effects, and disrupting this natural balance is usually detrimental.
Single Herbs and Formulas
Plants achieve their therapeutic effects through two primary mechanisms. The first, and the most heavily
studied, especially by modern science, is biochemical. As they grow, plants produce a variety of chemicals,
often referred to as "phytochemicals" (from the Greek root 'Phyt' for plant). As a group, these tend to be
highly complex molecules with a wide range of effects in the body. These include most vitamins, bioflavonoids
and carotenoids, just to name a few.
When using plants as medicine, it is possible to use one plant at a time, or to combine several plants
in the same tea, powder or tincture. When using one plant at a time, it is usually referred to as
a Single Herb medicine. An older term still found in some literature, is a "Simple". When using
multiple herbs in the same medicine, it is usually called a "Formula". The general consensus among
alternative practitioners skilled in the use of herbal medicines, is that Formulas are more effective than
single herbs, since it is seldom that therapeutic properties of any single plant can cover the entire
constellation of symptoms and treatment objectives
needed for a particular patient. In a formula, the different herbs interact both chemically and energetically
to produce synergistic effects that could not be produced by single herbs, and which could not be predicted
by the properties of the individual herbs in the formula.