In recent years, there has been a move from traditional medicine to more “alternative” medicine. Specifically, herbalism, or herbal medicine, is defined as the art or practice of using herbs and herbal preparations to maintain health and prevent, alleviate, or cure disease. From the outside, it appears this is a move back into the dark ages, but is that accurate?
The History of Herbalism
Herbalism is not an invention of the 21st century or even something social media influencers have dreamed up. Herbalism can be traced back to our Paleolithic ancestors. According to an article published by The Herbal Academy, “a Neanderthal burial unearthed at Shanidar in northern Iraq revealed a man laid on soil covered with grape hyacinth (Muscari ameniacum), yarrow (achillea millefolium), ephedra (Ephedra sp.), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), St. Barnaby’s thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), marshmallow pollen (Althea officinalis), and other herbs which are still used in herbal practices today (Storl, 2012; Griggs, 1981; Solecki, 1975).”
The earliest recorded “herbalists” were the medicine keepers of tribes, also known as the shamans, evidenced through ancient cave art dating back 30,000 years. However, it wasn’t until 5,000 years later that the Sumerians carved the first written record of medicinal plants on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. The “herbalism boom” happened between the 1400s and 1600s with the publication of Grete Herball, the first book ever published on the topic.
Herbalism was considered the common medical practice of the day for centuries. However, this changed in the second half of the 20th century when medicine began to move away from plants into more traditional science-based medicine, and the attitude toward herbalism became skeptical. People turned completely to pharmaceutical drugs, believing them to be superior to the plant medicine practices of the past.
Yet since the 1970a until today, there has been a growing herbalism revival as people, disillusioned with the pharmaceutical industry, search for answers in the medicine of their ancestors.
Why Herbalism When We Have Modern Medicine?
While it is understandable why our ancestors used herbal medicine before the invention of modern medicine, this still doesn’t answer why so many people are turning to these medicinal plants when we have access to quick and effective modern medicine.
One reason may be embedded in the fact that “there are more hospitals, more pharmaceutical drugs and medical procedures than ever before, and yet we have not conquered not made any significant progress in curing any major disease,” according to Richard Gale and Gary Null Ph.D., authors of the article “How the Corruption of Science is Contributing to the Collapse of Modern Civilization.”
Gale and Null also argue that efforts to prevent diseases have been completely abandoned for disease management, which is much more profitable for pharmaceutical companies.
Because of the obvious profit play these companies have been making, people have begun to lose trust that modern medicine is helping treat ailments, rather than just keeping people sick for the sake of more money spent on drugs and hospital bills later on. Additionally, it is becoming more well-known how these pharmaceutical companies are often acting as political agents for other powers because of their massive influence.
A pharmaceutical company could easily have thousands of employees and billions of dollars in sales and profits. Because of this, they are deeply intertwined with investors, public relations firms, federal health officials, and the media. Juggling that many plates mean morals will sometimes be compromised to keep investors happy. Take Merck’s anti-arthritic Vloxx, for example, which killed over 60,000 patients and injured another 130,000. However, because of the political ties with the FDA, no drug executive was prosecuted, and Merck only had to pay a $5 billion settlement to keep the whole thing quiet.
Is Herbalism the Solution?
With all the issues in the pharmaceutical industry, it is understandable that people would search for health care elsewhere. However, is herbal medicine the best alternative, and are there any risks to taking a completely plant-based approach to medicine? In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia, herbal medicines can cause kidney failure and liver damage in some consumers because of toxic chemicals or heavy metals in the herbs, or because they react harmfully with other drugs the person consumes.
What makes the prevention of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in herbs difficult is that herbalism isn’t recognized as medicinal but dietary in the United States, which means herbs are not being regulated to the same degree of seriousness as medicine in the mainstream medical world.
Additionally, most people do not inform doctors of herbal medicines they are taking because they consider them to be natural and, therefore, harmless. When a doctor prescribes something without knowledge of these herbs, the person can have adverse effects because of how the medicines interact inside their body.
Another danger could result in the concentration of the herbs. While most herbal medicines are harmless in their proper dosage, taking too much could end up poisoning the person consuming the herbs. However, because of how people think of plants, it is difficult for them to imagine that too much of a good thing could prove to be lethal.
It is obvious that neither the pharmaceutical industry nor herbalism provides the magic cure-all. If we are ever going to find true health for people, we need to objectively address the issues in both mainstream and alternative forms of medicine. People should be allowed the freedom to make informed decisions about what kinds of medicines they are putting in their bodies, and no one should be forced to consume anything they feel uncomfortable with.
To maintain health care freedom that is so important to so many Americans, herbalism needs to remain available to those who feel it is the best option for them. However, regulation would be helpful to help prevent issues that arise from hard metals, pesticides and toxic chemicals from ending up in herbal medicine, while still maintaining the integrity of the practice.
Edited by Sean Mulryan
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