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Herbal Medicines

Herbal medicine is one of the most ancient forms of remedial treatment, evolving with humanity, as we learned through trial and error, and by watching animals. Almost every major culture has at one time used herbs as its main or only source of medicine.

As long ago as 3000 B.C. the ancient Egyptians compiled lists of herbs and their properties. Later, the ancient Greeks followed suit. It was the Romans who brought herbs to northern Europe, and there herbalism was nurtured and molded by other cultural influences, including the Arabs, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula.

In the Middle Ages, herbal lore was often created around superstition, but underlying this was a basic comprehension of the body and the effects that different herbs had upon it. When the reasons why herbs worked on a medical basis were unclear, a philosophy or didactic myth would be woven to explain them. It was believed that people tended to embody one of four dispositions associated with bodily humors, being either cheerful, sluggish, hot tempered, or gloomy, depending on which of the humors predominated. Herbs were thought to possess their own characteristic temperaments, and were therefore prescribed according to their individual characteristics to correct imbalances. There was also a belief that each part of the body was governed by one sign of the zodiac, and each herb by one of the known planets.

Others believed in the Doctrine of Signatures, which held that any herb showing a physical similarity in shape or coloration to the symptoms of a disease could be used to effect a cure for that disease. When based on this ideology, prescribing became a complex business, but this was later simplified slightly by the advent of the printing industry. Herbals outlining these elaborate theories could be purchased, studied, and exchanged, and the practice of herbalism flourished, coexisting alongside developing orthodox 'medicine for centuries. However, as modern drug­ and surgery-based medicine became more established, the use of herbs became nearly extinct.

Pharmaceutical companies have encouraged the belief that their drugs containing synthesized plant ingredients were somehow more effective than plants themselves. While eagerly examining the enormous potential of medical botany, the pharmaceutical industry actively campaigned against herbalism - going to great lengths to find a toxic element in many herbs that would, in suitable quantities, be entirely harmless.

The growing concern about the side effects of drugs has meant that herbalism has been called upon once more to provide natural medicines. In particular, pregnant women, children, people with chronic conditions that have refused to be shifted by conventional medicine, and those with immunosuppressed conditions have had successful and safe treatment without the use of toxic drugs. As research into the active constituents of herbs continues, increasing numbers of ancient treatments and tonics are becoming recognized once more and brought back into widespread use.

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