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A Brief Overview

Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in botanical medicine. People are discovering how well herbs work and how few side effects they have.  Some of what you are reading about in the newspapers and seeing on TV is new knowledge - and much of it is the rediscovery of what people have known for thousands of years.
We have been successfully using herbs since ancient times. In 1998, scientists discovered the preserved body of a prehistoric man. In his stomach were plant remains of an herb used to purge the bowels.

Over the centuries, the use of herbs has become more refined and more complex. The first herbal medicines were simply the roots, leaves and flowers of plants. Then, in the 19th century, we began to study the plants and identify their constituents.


A brief Overview
Herbs – the Source of many Drugs
Modern Botanical Medicine
Herbs in the News
How to use Herbs successfully
Forms of Herbal Medicine
When to Get Professional Help


Researchers discovered that some of these isolated constituents were very powerful medicines. The painkillers aspirin and cocaine were two important drugs developed from plants. The development of our modern drugs began with the study of plant medicines. ( top )

However, in isolating the components of plants, the new drugs lost some of the protective power of the plant. For instance, aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid was originally derived from white willow bark. But along with the pain decreasing salicylic acid, the plant also contains stomach and intestinal buffers to counter the harsh effects of the acid. In its drug form, these natural buffers were eliminated. Now we have a powerful analgesic with the side effects of intestinal bleeding.

Herbs – the Source of Many Drugs  
The evolution of herbs into drugs continued into the 20th century. Many wonderful and useful drugs emerged like antibiotics and powerful painkillers. However, these drugs came at a high cost. Bacteria gradually developed defenses against the various antibiotics. People needed higher and higher doses with increasingly less success. Then too, there were the side effects and addictive potentials from these medications. ( top )

Modern Botanical Medicine

Modern botanical medicine is a complex and sophisticated area of medicine. In Europe, there are four-year botanical medical schools teaching the use of herbs exclusively. Used in several ways, herbs are effective for illnesses of short duration like colds and flus, to target a particular organ of the body, or as general tonics aiding in overall health. Echinacea and Goldenseal are two easily recognizable herbs most often used to treat short term illness. The herb, Gymnema sylvestre is an organ-specific herb that targets the pancreas and is helpful in Type II Diabetes. (Care must be used with this type herb to avoid interactions with conventional drugs.) Still other herbs have a more general tonifying effect and can be safely used with regular drugs.

Additionally, each herb has several purposes. The herbal schools categorize them into primary, secondary, and tertiary effects. You may have 20 different herbs that promote urination but their secondary and tertiary effects may vary from antihemorrhagic to increasing bowel movements and from sedation to stimulation. Herbs contain other properties that a good botanical practitioner must take into consideration such as the herb’s warming or cooling properties. The cardiac herbs are most effective if the nature of the pulse is taken into consideration. Does the patient have a full or a weak pulse? With coughs, it is important to know if the cough is dry or productive, and are there accompanying pains in the chest or involuntary urination? ( top )

Herbs in the News

Today people are discovering how well herbs work and how few side effects they have. As a result of this new interest, herbal and pharmaceutical companies are isolating components of the herbs and promoting a few herbs as panaceas. For example, Echinacea is an effective herb in stimulating the immune system. People are not cautioned that Echinacea may be too stimulating for the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. A less stimulating herb like Astragulus may be more effective. Another example of this is St. John’s wort. St. John’s wort primary action is for injury to the nervous system especially with shock or contusions with shock. Its secondary action is as a mild to moderate anti-depressant. It will do a fine job as a mild anti-depressant but then there are many herbs that may be more specific to the various types of depression.

A relatively new development in the herbal/pharmaceutical industry is to again isolate components of herbs. Sometimes, this is extremely effective. If someone has a severe liver disorder, then for a brief time, Silymarin, a family of constituents from the milk thistle plant is invaluable. However, in isolating components, other helpful properties of the plants are eliminated.
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How to Use Herbs Successfully

Botanical medicine is both simple and sophisticated. With a few good reference books, most people can treat their minor conditions effectively. Some good book titles are mentioned on the booklist of the resource pages of this website. David Hoffman’s Holistic Herbal is excellent. Also, the Michael Moore herbal website is also excellent at ( top )

Forms of Herbal Medicine  

Herbs come in several forms: tinctures (and extracts), pills, and bulk (usually used in teas). By far, the most convenient is the pill form. It is easily transportable and has minimal taste. However, it is not absorbed as well as either tinctures or teas. Generally speaking, Americans have poor digestion. Antacids and hemorrhoidal creams sell extremely well in American pharmacies. Both of these are signs of sluggish digestion and possible poor absorption. Herbal tinctures are more easily absorbed. Because they are often alcohol based, they should be avoided by anyone who has a personal history of alcohol abuse. For all others, placing the tincture in some boiling water may neutralize the alcohol. Herbal teas are excellent for digestive and urinary tract problems. They go directly to both of these areas and are extremely effective. The downside of herbal teas is some people find the taste unpleasant. You can add some sort of flavor to make the tea more palatable. I find that people like the flavors of Cinnamon, Orange Peel, Lemon Peel, or Glycerrhiza added to the tea.
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Often people tend to take too little rather than too much of botanical medicine. If trying to ward off a cold or flu, an adult can take 1 dropperful of tincture each hour for 1 day or for several hours until he/she feels better. Then the dose should be decreased and continued for 1 or 2 days more. Pills are more difficult to make dosage suggestions as there are varying milligrams in the capsules or tablets. Look in your books for signs of overdose. While this is rare, it is a good idea to be forewarned.


There are several herbs with which to be cautious. Among the more popular herbs, use Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Licorice (Glycerrhiza glabra) carefully. Goldenseal has many properties. While best known for its antimicrobial effect on the body, it also increases the secretion of digestive acids in the stomach. For anyone with stomach or duodenal ulcers, this would be an incorrect herb to take. Pregnant women should not use Goldenseal.  Licorice is an extremely versatile herb that is appropriate for almost everyone except those with high blood pressure. There is a deglycerated form of licorice that should be used in these cases. ( top )

When to Get Professional Help   

Some herbs can raise blood pressure or interact negatively with other medications. For more complicated and chronic medical conditions, especially when both conventional and herbal medicine are being used, it is best to get the aid of someone experienced in this form of medicine. Then you can have the benefit of the most current research in botanical medicine and the experience of someone who also has a medical background.
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Dr. Juniper Martin
11825 SW Greenburg Road, Suite A2
Tigard, OR 97223