Botanical Medicine

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Latest Edit: Hector 2014-03-12 (EDT)

Editor-In-Chief: Dr. Paul Saunders, B.Sc., M.Sc., PhD, ND, DHANP

See Also Naturopathic Therapies

Herbalism or botanical medicine is the traditional medicinal practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Plants have been used as healing agents since prehistoric times by people all over the world. Hippocrates (460 - 370 B.C.) and Galen (129 - 200 B.C.) advocated the use of herbs - along with fresh air, rest and proper diet - as the basis of achieving and maintaining health. The use of herbs have been part of Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine for over 5,000 years. In fact, about 80% of the world's population utilize the therapeutic properties of herbs. The medicinal properties of plants have been documented from the first century and ever since there was the ability to write things down many books have been written on the therapeutic properties of plants. There are over 1,000 botanical herbs used in the practice of naturopathic medicine.

Western medicine has its roots in the use of herbs. Until the 1950s, herbs were the basis of all pharmaceutical drugs. Even today, about 25% of pharmaceuticals are derived from herbs, such as opium, aspirin, digitalis and quinine. Others are extracted from plants such as corticosteroids and oral contraceptives.

Classification of Herbs

Herbs are complex organisms that have a tremendous biochemical diversity of phytochemicals that can protect, support or stimulate healing. Choosing the correct herb(s) for any symptom or condition is often based on an understanding of all the different properties of the herbs which is why it is best to work with a trained professional. Herbs are classified by:

Article Herbal Traditions for Stimulating the Vis Medicatrix Naturae: Adaptogens and Alternatives, Vital Link; 2009 Winter/Spring
Article Botanicals for Emotional Illnesses, NDNR [1] 2012 March

Herbal Concepts

The study of Herbalism maintains many of the traditional beliefs and concepts, such as

  • The plants that grow in a certain area cure the diseases of that region.
  • Doctrine of Signatures. The physical appearance of a plant is indicative of its therapeutic use.
  • Whole is greater than the parts. A main difference between herbs and drugs is that botanical medicine tends to use whole plant extracts, such as the roots or leaves, whereas drugs isolate individual chemicals. Pharmaceutical medicines prefer single ingredients on the grounds that the dose can be more easily quantified. Herbs are holistic by nature. Hence, practitioners using them often reject the notion of a single active ingredients, arguing that the various chemicals present in herbs interact to enhance the therapeutic effects of the herb and to minimize or eliminate adverse effects and toxicity.

Herbal Quality

Like food, the quality of the herbs greatly impacts the therapeutic effect. Herbs that are sold commerically have to adhere to specific standards that are set by each country. In Canada, the Natural Health Products Directorate, or NHPD [2], is responsible for setting the quality standards for all natural health products, including herbs.

To ensure that the herbs that you choose are quality follow these quidelines:

  1. Plants can be harvested in the wild, or grown on farms. Ecologically Wildcrafted Herbs describes a process for selecting plants in the plant's natual wild habitat without endangering their future from over harvesting. If the herbs are grown on a farm choose those that have been grown organically to ensure that the herbs are free from the residues of insecticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
  2. Plants should be tested to ensure that there is no adulterants in the form of foreign materials, dirt, metals, toxins or microbes.
  3. Genetically modified (GMO) herbs may be a concern, especially as there currently are no requirements to label product if it contains GMO materials.
  4. Plants should be harvested at the peak of its production of active ingredients. This enables the capture of a consistent range of bioactivity in the harvested plant.
  5. Once harvested, the plants should be processed as soon as possible to prevent the oxidation of the active ingredients.

Regulation of Herbs

  • Canada: In Canada all botanical medicines are regulated by the federal government under the Natural Health Products Directorate [3] (NHPD). Botanicals that are approved for sale in Canada will be assigned an NHP number which must appear on the product's label.
  • United States: In the United States herbal products are regulated as dietary supplements as defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994.

Therapeutic Forms

Herbs come in a variety of forms, each one with its specific advantages and disadvantages. The form that is the most therapeutic depends on the specific herb, the mechanism of action required and the age and health of the person taking the herbs. At times single herbs for a specific condition is chosen, at other time herbal formulae using a number of herbs is more indicated. The various forms include:

Herbal Oils
Herbal Lotions, Creams and Salves
Herbal Poultices and Compresses

Interactions with Drugs

Botanicals can alter the effect of drugs, resulting in an effect that is additive, synergistic, or one that has an antagonistic action. There are times that a naturopathic doctor, or trained practitioner, will choose specific herbs with the aim of decreasing the dosage or use of specific drugs.

There are a number of databases that are currently available to check for drug-herb interactions such as Herb, Nutrient and Drug Interactions: Clinical Implications and Therapeutic Strategies [4]

Any suspected drug-herb interactions should be reported:

In Canada to Health Canada MedEffect Advese Reporting
In United States to Adverse Reporting System