Plants as medicine

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Herbal medicine uses medicinal plants in preparations requiring minimal processing – including teas, powders, poultices and as food ingredients for a myriad of uses. Medicinal herbs are usually very safe and rich in nutrients.  Although quite powerful, they are seldom habit-forming or addictive.

Many herbs are ingested as food. Certain herbs have high concentrations of  naturally occurring compounds with specific actions that help guide our own healing processes. These herbs are used essentially for their targeted biochemical effect. For example, when parsley is eaten in a salad, our body digests it as a food. When juiced and used to treat edema, our bodies process it as a mild medicine and less as a food. (Edema is an abnormal amount of fluid swelling beneath the surface of the skin or in internal organs.)

Benefits of using herbal medicine:

  • Usually safe and mild, yet effective for most common, chronic illnesses and discomforts
  • Usually cost less for both the patient and the entire health care system
  • Have fewer side effects – if any
  • They are accessible to most people – many can be grown in our garden or available in bulk in our grocery stores
  • Typically deal with underlying issues, not just symptoms and therefore can help prevent health problems from developing into crisis.

Many modern medications are extracted from plants or are synthesized versions of phytochemicals. There are several important reasons why herbs may be a healthier and a more sensible choice for treating a great many health conditions, and for enhancing existing health.

The first great benefit of herbs is that our bodies know what to do with them, and with the component chemicals they contain. Medicinal herbs contain essentially the same phytochemicals as foods. Our bodies recognize them because we have been consuming these compounds for millennia. Every culture uses medicinal herbs and plant medicines from their own environment. We also developed extensive trade networks to exchange herbs and spices from one region to another. Our bodies know how to assimilate, digest and excrete waste from plant compounds.

The second great benefit of herbs, when used traditionally in their whole forms, is the action of a large collection of complementary components. Plant medicines contain thousands of component ingredients, which act synergistically to enhance health. Some of the components are primary active ingredients, others compliment and support their actions. Some components are nutritive while others are antidotes. Thus, the whole plant complex retains compounds that mitigate deleterious effects of active ingredients. Each phytochemical acts in different ways, or through slightly different metabolic pathways, to create the desired effect. For this reason, most traditional herbalists considered the strength of herbal medicine to be in the use of the whole herb. As medicines, they are both more effective and safer due to their complementary constituents.

Medicinal herbs tend to be generally balanced by nature, and when used in its whole form, side effects are almost never an issue. Many traditional herbalists believe that there is an innate ecological wisdom in the way a given plant is composed, having evolved to contain that unique and specific combination of components.

Finally, an herb contains a lower percentage of the active ingredient and is thus milder. Herbs are inherently more dilute, thanks to the presence of other plant material, such as fiber, as well as other phytochemical constituents. This promotes safety and ease of use in self-care.

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