Although western doctors consider herbal medicine to be a form of alternative therapy, it is in fact the most widely used system worldwide, with up to 80% of the world's population relying on herbal medicine for their health.
In fact, trying to separate western pharmaceuticals out from herbal medicine is a thankless task - many well known pharmaceuticals come originally from plants. Examples include the painkiller morphine, which comes from poppies, and aspirin, which comes from the bark of willow trees.
Where the two branches really differ is in the way they view and use plants. The western philosophy is to see plants as containing ingredients - these are separated out, synthesized, and used in isolation.
The traditional approach, however, understands that plants may contain dozens of different ingredients, which are in balance within the plant. It's important to keep them together as the different components are more or less powerful depending on the others that are present.
There are approaches from all over the world that use plants in this way. Some examples include:
- Ayurvedic medicine
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Each of these uses plants in their natural form to treat illness and disease, attempting to match the herbal mixture in a way that is individual to you and your characteristics.
In the west, some of the herbs we are most familiar with include:
- St. John's Wort for treating of mild to moderate depression
- Echinacea - used to treat colds and other respiratory (breathing) infections
- Garlic - used to reduce blood cholesterol levels
- Ginkgo biloba - believed to improve mental performance for those with Alzheimer's disease