Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.Pharmacognosy is the study of medicines derived from natural sources.
Traditional use of medicines is recognized as a way to learn about potential future medicines. In 2001, researchers identified 122 compounds used in mainstream medicine which were derived from "ethnomedical" plant sources; 80% of these compounds were used in the same or related manner as the traditional ethnomedical use.
Plants have evolved the ability to synthesize chemical compounds that help them defend against attack from a wide variety of predators such as insects, fungi and herbivorous mammals. By chance some of these compounds whilst being toxic to plant predators turn out to have beneficial effects when used to treat human diseases. Such secondary metabolites are highly varied in structure, many are aromatic substances, most of which are phenols or their oxygen-substituted derivatives. At least 12,000 have been isolated so far; a number estimated to be less than 10% of the total. Chemical compounds in plants mediate their effects on the human body by binding to receptor molecules present in the body; such processes are identical to those already well understood for conventional drugs and as such herbal medicines do not differ greatly from conventional drugs in terms of how they work. This enables herbal medicines to be in principle just as effective as conventional medicines but also gives them the same potential to cause harmful side effects. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds.
Herbal Medicine means that instead of drugs, whole plants or whole parts of plants (leaf, root, etc.) are used to treat people. This retains all the active ingredients of plant origin without them being isolated and concentrated. Herbalism is an ancient art (from cavemen to "witches"!) but modern herbalists work on sound chemical principles. Medical Herbalism has special exemptions under the Medicines Act provided certain conditions are met and by choosing a qualified practitioner who is a member of a known professional body, you can be sure that you are in safe hands.
Approximately a quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs currently prescribed by doctors were originally derived from plants. The main difference between herbal medicines and orthodox drugs is that a herb contains many active ingredients which work in harmony rather than just one active chemical. For example, diuretic drugs ("water tablets") may cause the body to lose large amounts of potassium (which is important in heart function) and sometimes the doctor needs to prescribe a potassium supplement. In herbal medicine, dandelion leaf is often used as a potent diuretic but it also contains useful amounts of potassium salts, demonstrating the benefits of using the whole natural remedy.
By combining orthodox medical knowledge and skills with scientific understanding of plant medicines, many everyday and chronic conditions can be treated naturally and effectively using herbal remedies. Some people look to these when they do not wish to take drugs offered for their condition; if they wish to discontinue their medication (though this should never be done without professional guidance); to treat side-effects of their medication; or if medication has not helped them. Some simply prefer a more holistic approach to treatment, which does not solely concentrate on the symptoms, but on the whole person and how their body is working as a whole. Herbal medicine can be used effectively in all sorts of conditions and a Medical Herbalist is used to treating most of the conditions for which people might seek medical advice, both acute illnesses and long term conditions.