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Herbal Medicine

"The World Health Organization notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74 per cent were used in modern medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures."

Herbal medicine is the most ancient form of health care known to humankind. Herbs have been used in all cultures throughout history. Extensive scientific documentation now exists concerning their use for health conditions, including premenstrual syndrome, indigestion, insomnia, heart disease, cancer and HIV.

Herbs have always been integral to the practice of medicine. The word drug comes from the old Dutch word drogge meaning 'to dry', as pharmacists, physicians and ancient healers often dried plants to use as medicines. Today approximately 25 per cent of all prescription drugs are still derived from trees, shrubs, or herbs. Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.

Yet, for the most part, modern medicine has veered from the use of pure herbs in its treatment of disease and other health disorders. One of the reasons for this is economic. Herbs, by their very nature, cannot be patented. Since herbs cannot be patented and drug companies cannot hold the exclusive right to sell a particular herb, they are not motivated to invest any money in that herb's testing or promotion. The collection and preparation of herbal medicine cannot be as easily controlled as the manufacture of synthetic drugs, making its profits less dependable. In addition, many of these medicinal plants grow only in the Amazonian rain forest or other politically and economically unstable places, which also affects the supply of the herb. Most importantly, the demand for herbal medicine has decreased in the United States because Americans have been conditioned to rely on synthetic, commercial drugs to provide quick relief, regardless of side-effects.

Yet, the current viewpoint seems to be changing. "The revival of interest in herbal medicine is a worldwide phenomenon," says Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council. This renaissance is due to the growing concern of the general public about the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs, the impersonal and often demeaning experience of modern health care practices, as well as a renewed recognition of the unique medicinal value of herbal medicine.

"The scope of herbal medicine ranges from mild-acting plant medicines such as chamomile and peppermint, to very potent ones such as chamomile and peppermint, to very potent ones such as foxglove (from which the drug digitalis is derived). In between these two poles lies a wide spectrum of plant medicine with significant medical applications," says Donald Brown, of Bastyr College, in Seattle, Washington, and an educator in herbal medicine. "One need only go to the United States Pharmacopoeia to see the central role that plant medicine has played in American medicine."