In herbology, we have a belief that God has a sense of humor, because as you walk out the door to go to a doctor or pharmacy for expensive medications, therapies, or surgeries, you will probably trip over a plant that contains the remedy for what ails you.
The topic of this article is actually “Why do we use herbs?” Herbalists have existed in every culture from ancient times. Indigenous tribes knew what plant parts to use to deal with pains, wounds, etc. Historical data shows that in many cases, plants were used for the same purposes by cultures that had no contact with each other. Some plants were practically worshipped, as in cascara sagrada, which means Holy Bark, and Alfalfa, which roughly means “the god of all plants.” Viable licorice root has been found in the tombs of some Egyptian Pharaohs. There is such a body of historical evidence supporting the use of herbs for therapeutic means, that a better question would actually be, “Why would a person NOT use herbs?” Or perhaps, “Are there cogent and empirical reasons for using herbs therapeutically versus medications?”
I’d like to first do a little comparison between herbs and medications, and then move on to some explanation about herbs, so let me tackle herbs vs. medications as expeditiously as possible:
1) Herbs are whole food products which are balanced rather than chemical isolates which are not;
2) Many medications are fairly recent, so their effects on our bodies have not been studied over the long term, while herbs have thousands of years of documentation usage to determine safety.
3) The margin of error for toxicity for medications is extremely narrow, while the margine of error for toxicity for herbs is extremely broad.
4) The most serious side effects for herbs is typically a little vomiting or diarrhea, while the most serious side effects for medications includes liver disease, and death.
Now to be fair, many medications have origins that are related to herbs, either through the extraction of chemicals, or the creation of analogous chemicals to mirror plant effects. Aspirin and valium are among these medications. The difference though, is that when you take a single chemical and put it into a pill, you do not have the same results that you do from a food product that contains hundreds of chemical compounds that balance each other. As a result, several hundred deaths per year are attributed to simple little aspirins, but none to white willow bark, containing salycin, which was the inspiration for aspirin.
Now on to more pleasant discussion. Why do herbs do what they do? As previously stated, herbs are food items. They provide nutritional benefits at four different levels.
1) Macro-nutritents–Herbs are a source of the primary nutrients found in all foods, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and fiber.
2) Micro-nutrients–Herbs are richer than most other foods in micro-nutrient vitamins and minerals. They also contain food enzymes, which aid in digestion. Every herb that is on the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list has been profiled to identify its macro and micro nutritional components.
3) Active Constituents–Herbs contain a significantly higher proportion per weight than most other foods in various chemical compounds that stimulate physiological responses in the human body. For example, we all know that a muscle cannot move unless there is a nerve impulse, and there cannot be a nerve impulse without a neuro-chemical transmission, and that these neurochemical transmissions are dependent on the proper chemical components and stimuli being present. So if a particular herb that we consume contains the tools that the body needs to either create the cells, tissues, organs and systems of our body, or to stimulate the actions performed by these systems, then our body can function normally.
The four general categories of herbs with their specific chemical constituents are:
A) Aromatic/Fire Herbs–Contain aromatic or volatile chemicals that are needed to stimulate actions in the body, improve circulation, digestion, nervous function, etc.
B) Mucillant/Water Herbs–Contain complex polysaccharides, which we call soluble fiber, these herbs are soothing to irritated or inflamed systems, and absorb water and toxins for elimination.
C) Bitter/Air Herbs–Contain highly bioactive alkaloids and glycocides, these herbs are effective activators and cleansers, useful especially for the intestinal system
D) Astringent/Earth Herbs–With their constituent acidic compounds, these herbs are effective in toning, tightening and squeezing body tissues, assisting organs in all systems to remain toned and functional for use.
Every herb contains constituents from more than one category, but most are predominantly able to be categorized into one category. Having a working knowledge of these four categories simplifies the process of selecting specific herbs to be used for various health imbalances. For more information on the above descriptions of the four categories of herbs and how these herbs operate in our bodies, please refer to our book on understanding herbs, “The Herbmasters Guidebook,” available at www.theherbmasters.com.
4 The final category of nutritional factors in herbs is the energetic qualities of the herbs. It is a simple fact that our bodies are primarily composed of energy, NOT STUFF! Increase the size of a single atom to the size of a basketball, and the particles of matter are still too small to be perceived without a microscope. Herbs have certain affinities connecting them with specific systems and functions in the body, like a magnet. These characteristics have not been studied as extensively as the other nutrient levels of herbs. For more information on this topic, research information on the “Doctrine of Signatures.”
In educating people to use herbs, we prefer to focus on the first three nutrient levels in herbs, especially the Active Constituents level. We publish an online blog at www.theherbmasters.com, with regular posts, and online video on various herbs and body conditions. We are also happy to post or respond to specific requests for information. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. May your health always be your greatest wealth. Dallin–The Herbmaster.