How Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Really, the question is: How does medicine work in our body?

Our endocrine and nervous systems produce/send/react to chemical messages triggering responses in our body. By absorbing chemicals into our body, we can alter the chemical messages being sent and trigger a response. Both herbal medicine and pharmaceutical medicine are chemicals which trigger a response in our body.

With pharmaceutical drugs, scientists have identified a specific chemical (often times originally from a plant or herb source), isolated that chemical as an “active ingredient” and identified our body’s typical response to that chemical to treat an illness and/or disease. The benefits to using pharmaceutical drugs is that it is an isolated source of the chemical, it’s dosing is more precise and it’s side effects are “more” known through drug trials. The detriments to using pharmaceuticals are the same as it’s benefits. The isolated source of the chemical is “purified”, more harsh to our system. It doesn’t have other chemicals in the herbal compound buffering the isolated chemical’s effect. Pharmaceuticals frequently expose us to a higher rate of side effects or possibly more extreme side effects due to its pure, isolated nature.

Herbal medicine has it’s benefits and detriments. Purity and dosage is an issue as the desired chemical effect from say, chamomile, will depend on how much sunlight, rain and the health of the soil with which the chamomile plant grew. On the other hand, more chemical compounds are in the chamomile plant than say an over-the-counter sleep aid. The other chemical compounds buffer the sedative effects of chamomile. This means that it is far more gentle on our system – no hang over effect in the morning.  The naturally derived chemical combinations can be more effective in treating illness and/or disease; especially when the pharmaceutical alternative has severe side effects.  But it may take longer and require higher doses of the herbal drug to be effective.  One other important item to note is that, herbal medicine (in general) is not regulated.  This means it could contain chemicals you do not wish to ingest.  For instance, lead in high concentrations were recently found in store-bought turmeric spice.  At least three turmeric spice manufacturers — Gel Spice, JM Exotic Foods and Gel Spice — have been forced to issue “voluntary” recalls of their turmeric products due to dangerous levels of lead found in their spices.  So… buyer beware!

I frequently use herbal medicine in combination with nutrition rather than pharmaceuticals, as that is my preference.  BUT – I would never suggest that everyone take that stance or that pharmaceuticals are not a great option for many people.

Below is a primer on understanding the chemical effects of specific herbs.  I hope you enjoy!

Understanding Herbal Actions

When beginning to use herbs in caring for your health and that of your family, it’s important to understand the terminology you will come across in articles and literature during your research. Herbs have a long history of use and offer a vastness of knowledge that can be confusing or overwhelming if we are unsure of the terminology used to describe the plants.  plant collage

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