Many of the thousands of plant species growing throughout the world have medicinal
uses, containing active constituents that have a direct action on the body. They are used
both in herbal and conventional medicine and offer benefits that pharmaceutical drugs
often lack, helping to combat illness and support the body’s efforts to regain good health.
There is no doubt that in extreme situations, the treatments
devised by modern medicine can offer an unparalleled
opportunity to relieve symptoms and save lives. A newspaper
article in 1993 described the terrible conditions in a hospital
in war-torn Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Deprived of conventional medical supplies and drugs, the
doctors were forced to use a well-known European herb,
valerian (Valeriana officinalis, p. 148), as a painkiller for the
wounded and as an anesthetic. Valerian is an effective herbal
medicine for anxiety and nervous tension, but it is woefully
inadequate as an analgesic or anesthetic.
Orthodox pharmaceutical medicines sustain life and counter
infections in situations where other types of treatment
may have little to offer. Modern surgical techniques, such as
keyhole surgery and plastic surgery, and the whole range of
diagnostics and of life-support machinery now available, can
all be used to improve the chances of recovery from serious
illness or injury.
The Benefits of Herbal Medicine
Yet despite the dramatic advances and advantages of
conventional medicine, or biomedicine as it is also known,
it is clear that herbal medicine has much to offer. We tend
to forget that in all but the past 70 years or so, humans
have relied almost entirely on plants to treat all manner
of illnesses, from minor problems such as coughs and colds
Today, herbal remedies are coming back into prominence
because the efficacy of conventional medicines such as
antibiotics, which once had near-universal effectiveness against
serious infections, is on the wane. Over the years, infectious
organisms have developed resistance to synthesized drugs,
and the herb sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua, p. 67) and
its active constituent artemisinin, for example, are now the
standard treatment for malaria in tropical areas where
the protozoa causing the infection no longer respond to
Herbal medicine often complements conventional
treatments, providing safe, well-tolerated remedies for chronic
illnesses. It is experiencing a dramatic renaissance in Western
countries, partly because no effective conventional treatment
as yet exists for many chronic illnesses, such as asthma,
arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, concern
over the side effects of biomedicine is encouraging people
to look for more gentle forms of treatment. It is estimated
that 10–20% of hospital patients in the West are there due
to the side effects of conventional medical treatment.
Using Herbs Wisely
Most commonly used herbs are extremely safe to use.
But some plants can produce side effects and, like all
medicines, herbal remedies must be treated with respect.
It is essential to take or use certain plants only under the
guidance of a well-trained practitioner, to avoid adverse
consequences. Ma huang (Ephedra sinica, p. 95), for example,
can be extremely toxic at the wrong dosage, and comfrey
(Symphytum officinale, p. 138), a very popular herb in the
past, is thought to cause severe or even fatal liver damage
in rare circumstances. When an herbal medicine is used
correctly, however, the chances of developing a serious side
effect are remote.
Potent Plant Chemicals
The ability of an herbal medicine to affect body systems
depends on the chemical constituents that it contains.
Scientists first started extracting and isolating chemicals from
plants in the 18th century, and since that time we have
grown accustomed to looking at herbs and their effects in
terms of the active constituents they contain. This Encyclopedia
is no exception, providing details of all the main active