Herbal Medicine 101

The basics of plant remedies

Herbal medicine is seeing a revival of use but there is a lot of misinformation on the actual practice of it. This is a succinct overview of plant-based medicine: definition, philosophy, principles, global systems, herbal energetics/actions, medicinal preparations, cautions, and contraindications. 

What is herbalism?

The most basic definition is the study and use of plants for medicinal purposes.  A broader perspective includes the following philosophical beliefs:

  • Traditional healing systems treat the individual person, not the disease.
  • Individuals have differing constitutions (or physical states).
  • Symptoms are clues to underlying conditions.
  • Plant healers treat conditions, not causes. They treat what they can “see.”
  • The human body possesses a powerful physiological system that is generally capable of healing itself. Plant-based medicine supports the body’s efforts.
  • Lifestyle factors and practices are the foundation of human wellness.
  • Humans have evolved with the synergetic effects of plants.
  • Matching herbal actions & energetics to the individual’s physical state form the basis for understanding herbal medicine.

This paraphrased excerpt from Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine offers my favorite description of the different perspectives between modern and traditional medicine.

Healer as a Mechanic vs. Healer as a Gardener

Western modern medicine is based on the belief that humans are separate from nature and like the world, the human body is like a machine with parts that can be dismantled. Reality is tangible only if it can be measured, quantified, and analyzed. In Western culture, scientific thinking replaced other ways of understanding the world.  Western medicine is the study of how the human machine works and the doctor/healer is the mechanic who may do occasional routine maintenance but mostly intervenes to execute emergency repairs…p.19

Most traditional herbal systems are based on the belief that all life occurs within the circle of nature. All of nature is interconnected and mutually dependent; humans are part of nature. Rooted in the agriculture that sustained life, most traditional/ancient cultures lived within nature (through seasons, rhythms, and patterns)…health was understood broadly, defining the whole being with the social and natural order…what is good for nature is good for humanity…when people are like gardens, then doctors/healers are like gardeners…p.30

herb garden
Herb garden (Photo: SK)

A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

The use of herbs for medicine has a recorded use of over 5000 years, with nearly every historical culture using plants as their medicine. The World Health Organization states that over 80% of the world’s population considers plant-based medicine as part of their primary healthcare.

Most traditional systems are based on many years of experimentation and observation. Healers treat what they can see: conditions and symptoms.

Traditional Health Systems

  • Ayurveda – India’s Traditional Healthcare (believed to be the oldest)
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine – Oldest recorded use; complex system
  • Western European Herbalism – Started with the Greeks
  • North and South American Indigenous Plant Medicine
  • Many regional folk medicinal traditions throughtout the world
Yin -Yang symbol in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Yin -Yang symbol in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash

Modern versus Traditional

Modern medicine and its technological advances have greatly improved the health of billions during the last century. Its strengths are diagnostics, antibiotics, surgery, and emergency treatment. It has failed miserably when it comes to chronic disease, nutrition, and overall wellness. Its reliance on the pharmaceutical industry and its dependence on the insurance industry has resulted in a system that grants 20-minute appointments with some doctors that have become medical robots. At my recent annual checkup with my MD, neither she nor her staff asked me about my diet, my exercise routine, my stress level, or even the amount of water I drink each day. Of course, not all people have that experience and more and more doctors are frustrated with the way the system has evolved.

Traditional medicine is plant-based and their respective practitioners offer a different experience that includes a broad intake of information starting with lifestyle habits. My consult with a clinical herbalist started with a 13-page intake form that asked me about overall physical health, my primary complaint and its symptoms, and my diet and exercise habits. It also included questions about my mental health, stress level, and any recent life events that may have influenced my physical health.

Botanical medicine in the US operates under the following conditions:

  • Not a one size fits all: There is no standardized way to use herbs, and no standardized dosage.
  • Herbalists are not regulated or licensed in the United States.
  • Herbs are considered a supplement, not drugs by the FDA so they are not regulated or controlled.
  • Herbs should not be used as a drug replacement unless under medical supervision.
  • Herbs can be powerful and can interfere with pharmaceutical drugs. Some herbs can be toxic.

Botany of Medicinal Plants

Herbal medicine requires knowledge of plants, botanical nomenclature, and harvesting practices.

  • Botanical names (scientific notation including genus and species) are important. Common names are often used among multiple species. In Western herbalism, the species name of officinalis, indicates a history of medicinal use.
  • Plant identification is mandatory; know clearly what plant you are working with and its effects. Not all species in a similar genus or family will offer medicinal properties.
  • Herbalism uses all plant parts: roots, fruits, leaves, flowers, seeds, rhizomes and root bark as well as mushrooms, minerals and some animal parts.
Blue Elderberry of Western North America (PHOTO: SK
Blue Elderberry of Western North America (PHOTO: SK)
  • Wildcrafting is the ethical and sustainable gathering of plants, fruits and fungi from the wild for the purpose of eating and medicine-making. Plant identification is critical.
  • Bio-regional plants: Historically, healers used the plants that surrounded them believing that the regional plants match the health needs of the locals people. Most of our culinary herbs are European natives but we have cultivated them in the Americas for hundreds of years. Indigenous people of the Americas have/had an extensive use of regional native plants.

Medicinal Preparations

How plants are prepared for medicinal use affects their quality, efficacy and use.

Teas/Infusions/decoctions – Teas are made with boiled water poured over fresh or dried leafy parts, covered & steeped for 5-15 minutes.  Infusions are steeped longer for nutritive properties. Decoctions are made by simmering barks, seeds, twigs, or roots for a longer period of time.

tea, herbal tea, mint-5397697.jpg
Herbal Tea (Photo: Pixabay)

Tinctures/Extracts – Herbs/spices are steeped in alcohol, vinegar, or glycerite for a minimum of several weeks. Excellent for long-term storage; used in drop dosages mostly for immediate effect or acute issues.

Elixirs/Cordials – Tincture-like mixture blended with honey or maple syrup; often tasty and useful for immune-supporting herbs.

Oxymels – Herbs steeped in vinegar & honey; excellent for long-term storage – used mostly for acute care.

Sage - Lemon balm Oxymel (PHOTO: SK)
Sage – Lemon balm Oxymel (PHOTO: SK)

Infused Honeys & Vinegars – Good for long-term storage; honey and raw vinegar offer additional medicinal benefits.

Syrups – Herbs cooked in honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Avoid using refined sugar. Short-term storage unless canned and useful for children. Often hosts both medicinal and nutritional values.

Compresses – Cloth soaked in strong herbal infusions and placed on wounds or sore areas.

Poultices – A mass of plant material, often chewed or steamed, and then applied to the body.

Liniments – Herbs steeped in oil or an alcohol base, then applied topically to the body for pain relief.

Electuaries – A ground herb or spice mixed with honey for internal use; Useful for the more unpleasant-tasting herbs.

Infused Oils – Primarily for topical application and use in balms/salves; culinary herbs can infuse cooking oils; short-term and refrigeration may be necessary

Balms/Salves – A topical remedy made of infused herbal oils and beeswax

Herbal healing salves (Photo: SK)
Herbal healing salves (Photo: SK)

Herbal Oils

Aromatic Volatile Oil – Found in many tea and culinary herbs. Provides flavor, aroma, and some medicinal properties.

Essential Oils – Usually large amounts of plant matter are distilled, creating potent volatile oils used primarily for aromatherapy & body care products. Some EOs can have powerful medicinal properties; their use should be monitored by professionals.

Plant-infused Oils – Done by steeping fresh, wilted, or dried herbs (often entire plants) in vegetable oils. Used alone and for making salves and balms.

The glorious red of St. John's oil (Photo: SK)
The glorious red of St. John’s oil (Photo: SK)


Culinary Use – Small doses offering little medicinal action; safe for everyone
Medicinal Use – Teas, tinctures, ingestive preparations: Contraindications should be followed.
Therapeutic Use – Large doses of powdered herbs or capsules should be monitored by a health professional.
Nutritive – Used for mineral and vitamin support & safe for everyone but possible side effects should be considered.

Cautions and Contraindictions

  • Always practice caution before using or recommending an herb as medicine. Research the plants and understand their actions and energetics.
  • Contraindications are assigned to plants that have known negative effects for certain conditions.
  • Herbs can interact with pharmecutical drugs; discuss with a pharmacist.
  • Pregnant and nursing women should always practice caution and avoid any herbal medicine that they have not properly researched.
  • Many herbs can be used with children and elderly people but preparation and dosages will vary.
  • Some herbal preparations can be used with animals but again, knowledge and dosage are critical.

Herbal Actions

Botanical medicine is far more complicated than simply taking a specific herb for a specific condition. Plants are complex, living beings and their medicinal actions describe the observable effects of herbs in the body. Their interactions with our bodies in the context of healing are understood in terms of patterns of basic energetics: heating & cooling, drying & moistening. Energetics refers to the properties of an herb experienced through taste, touch, sight, and smell — for example, we know cucumbers are cooling and ginger is warming.

Chopped fresh ginger
Fresh ginger (PHOTO: SK)

Still, there are basic categories of plants because of their medicinal actions on our bodies. The list below includes some but not all of the ways that herbs can assist the body.

Plants’ Medicinal Actions

Adaptogens are plants that assist the body’s response to stress and are useful for people who are feeling chronically exhausted or burned out.

Alteratives support the body’s ability to detox and secrete toxins.

Anti-inflammatory herbs assist in reducing the inflammatory responses produced by the body.

Astringents are used to contract tissues that are swollen, injured or weak.

Bitter herbs stimulate the digestive system by increasing the secretion of gastric juices.

Demulcents lubricate tissues that could be dry, inflamed, irritated, or injured.

Diaphoretic herbs induce perspiration.

Diuretics increase the amount of urine passed from the body.

Expectorants promote mucous secretion in air passages.

Nervines assist the nervous system by tonifying, relaxing, or stimulating.

Nutritive herbs nourish the body with high amounts of vitamins and minerals, often called tonics.

Vulnerary herbs help the body to heal wounds.

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