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Herbal Medicine goes way back

Herbal Medicine Goes Way Back

The history of herbs goes back before written history began. When the Sumerians developed writing one of the first things they wrote about was herbal medicine. This was five thousand years ago. They lived in ancient Mesopotamia or modern day Iraq.

The study of medicine began with the Egyptians.

They also founded the first medical schools including Per Bastet. The doctors used a combination of herbs and dreams to heal. They were also the first to study human anatomy. This was in part because they embalmed the dead, removing the internal organs.

While Imhotep is considered the Father of Medicine most people are more aware of the Greek influence. Hippocrates wrote a book that stood for centuries as the go-to medical manual. In fact the Hippocratic Oath is still taken by doctors, nurses and some other medical personnel.

Over the centuries a lot of theories were developed about herbs. Some were considered evil and used only by witches. Some were considered sacred. The most interesting theory came out around 1500 AD. The Doctrine of Signatures maintained that God signed each plant with a symbol of what it was to be used for. The most surprising thing is that some of the time they were right.

Until the mid-1800s herbs were the only source of medicine available. In 1832 chloral hydrate was first synthesized. It wasn’t put into use until 1869 and problems were quickly noticed. This was the drug used in Mickie Finns, or knock out drops. It was also addicting and overdoses were fatal in as little as five hours.

The most popular drug that was synthesized was aspirin. The bark of the willow tree has been used since prehistory to deal with aches, pain and fevers. Unfortunately it also caused a lot of gastric problems. Adding another chemical turned it into acetylsalicylic acid, which we now know by the name aspirin. 

The synthesizing of drugs marked a decline in the use of herbs. “Better living through chemistry” became the way of life for doctors and patients. Dosages could be exact and test results could be consulted. Many thought that this form of medicine was dead, at least in first world countries.

The American housewife begged to differ. There are still cookbooks that contain recipes for handling some of life’s minor problems. Older cookbooks deal with major problems such as measles and mumps. That’s because the housewife tended to handle most problems unless a bone was broken.

Even that died down and it became out of fashion to use herbs. “Back to nature” groups were about the only thing that kept it alive or so it was thought. In 1974 a documentary survey was filmed about life in Appalachia. One of those interviewed was C. F. Gray, also known as the Catfish Man.

After the documentary Gray became rather famous. He was known as the herbalist to the stars and advised a good deal of Hollywood about the use of herbs. He was interviewed on talk shows including the Tonight Show.

As herbal remedies became more popular science began taking a longer look at them. Some, such as foxglove, never left the field of medicine. It is still used to produce digitalis. There is a list of plants that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and are readily available. Others have been banned or have warnings that go with them.

This is for good reason. There are two phrases that herbalists hear that just about drive them crazy. The first is “it’s all natural.” The second is “herbs don’t have side effects.” Yes, herbs are all natural. That does not equate to safe. Hemlock is all natural but it’s what Socrates was given to commit ritual suicide.

When it comes to side effects not only do herbs have them they also have drug/herb and herb/herb interactions. There are some combinations that shouldn’t be taken together. Herbs can also have an effect on medical conditions. One of the best examples of that is licorice root. It is commonly used as a sweetener in grocery store herb blends but if someone has high blood pressure or diabetes it’s a very bad idea.

Herbs are also somewhat age dependent. Most herbalists won’t give remedies to children under the age of two. Herbs like eucalyptus will cause serious illness if used on or around children of that age. Topical applications can be used from three until six but taking cough medicines with the herb in it is dangerous until a child is over the age of six.

Essential oils made from herbs are also becoming popular. These oils can do a lot of things, many of them good. However they do have some drawbacks. Peppermint essential oil should not be used on or around children under the age of two. It can cause serious breathing problems.

An amusing anecdote comes from the use of jasmine essential oil. It was being used to help calm a dementia patient and it did seem to help. However, before the caregivers could figure out the cause eleven bees came into the house in the space of ten minutes. That particular oil didn’t get used again due to the bee allergies of one of the caregivers.

As well organized studies are being done on herbs we are gaining new medications and new foods. We are learning that the herbs in our spice rack can do more than just season our food. They can provide relief from everyday problems like tooth aches (clove oil), sore throats (cinnamon and cloves) and to lower cholesterol (oats and garlic).

With this new information people can look up what they wish to take and easily check to see if there are any interactions or precautions. It is still always best to be diagnosed by a doctor and to discuss any herbal remedies considered. Speaking to the pharmacist is even better as they can catch interactions faster than most doctors. 

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