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A history of all things herbal…

When’s the last time you took a product containing herbs?  

What wonderful health-helping plants nature gives us.  Since humankind existed alongside them, we’ve turned to nature to sustain and support, developing all kids of remedies along the way. For millennia.  Are you making the most of these amazing plant constituents?

The science of phytotherapy

The term herbal medicine or phytotherapy generally applies to the art and science of using herbs to help manage illness. This tradition dates back to the 17th Century with physicians such as Culpeper.

Over the past 50 years, modern science has given us a very much deeper insight into how the body works. With increasingly sophisticated technical methods available, doctors and scientists now have a much better knowledge of human chemistry and physiology. 

This knowledge, ironically, has given credibility to the  way that herbal formulations interact with the body; and despite the advances of pharmacy, the practice of using herbs has not been pushed aside. Contrary to this, its use has, since the 1980’s, become more and more popular. Whereas use of herbs in the past was based on information passed down from generation to generation, we are now able to identify the active components of each herb and together with the new understanding of human physiology, we are able to explain why and how these herbs work. 

Nowadays, herbal medicine and phytotherapy focuses very much on the science of using herbs to maintain health and well-being. The term ‘phytotherapy’ was introduced by the French physician, Henri Leclerc in the 1950’s. He was a prominent physician who used herbs in clinical practice and published numerous essays, all of which culminated in the publication of his work ‘Precis de Phytotherapie’. This is the first recorded use of the term Phytotherapy which was quickly adopted by the Germans who used it to describe the application of  herbs in helping to managing health conditions.

How technology helped us to discover more

In Europe, the term Phytotherapy is used to differentiate between this science and the art of traditional herbalism. It is an indication that the use of medicinal plants is now a scientific subject, open to scientific controls and tests such as the HPLC (high pressure liquid chromatography) and TLC (thin layer chromatography). 

For instance, Echinacea has long been used for fevers and Ginkgo biloba for the memory. With the science of Phytotherapy and through the scientific tests available, it is now possible to isolate many of the active components and constituents of these plants, which in turn helps us to explain the action of the herbs. 

It can be shown that the active components of Echinacea (including alkylamides) are able to modulate the immune system; and that Ginkgo has vasodilatory (vaso=vessel; dilatory=opening) action on the arteries because of constituents which have been termed ginkgolides. Phytotherapy can thus help, through the modern science of Physiology, to explain the way herbs work in the body. 

A holistic herbal approach

Whilst Phytotherapy uses modern science to help the understanding of the actions of herbs, it must be emphasised that it is not the intention of Phytotherapists to isolate and purify the active components they identify, for clinical use. Phytotherapists believe that the whole plant is the active agent with many constituents working synergistically with each other. 

If you want more information about common herbs, whether culinary, herbal preparations, or whether you’d like a consultation with a herbal practitioner, your health store can help.  

Find your local health store here.

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Healthy Does It Features Writer

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