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Herbs - Introduction

The practice of herbal medicine dates back to the very earliest periods of known human history. There is evidence of herbs having been used in the treatment of diseases and for revitalising body systems in almost all ancient civilizations—the Indian, the Egyptian, the Chinese and even the Greek and Roman civilizations. Plants were the mainstay'of medicine and credited with mystical and almost supernatural powers of healing. So much so that in Britain herbs became a focus of superstition, reaching their peak of importance in the Middle Ages when every village had its witch, and every witch her herbs and potions. Herbs were also used to counteract the witches' powers. Garlic, hyssop and wormwood all combated witchcraft and evil spirits.

In India, the records indicate, that herbs have been in use for treating diseases since ancient times. There are references to the curative properties of some herbs in the Rigueda, which is believed to have been written between 3500 and 1800 BC. Many of the plants mentioned in the Rigveda can be identified with reasonable certainty, although references to plants in Rigveda are very sketchy. A more detailed account is found in the Atharvaveda. A fairly comprehensive information about herbs has been recorded in Charaka Samhita and Shusruta Samhita—the two most important works on Ayurvedic system of medicine. The latter deals with as many as 700 herbs, some of which have not even originated in India. In subsequent years, more and more plants were used in indigenous medicine and their number gradually increased to 1500. The Chinese also have a compilation of 1,000 ancient herbs. Pen Ts'ao Ching is an important ancient Chinese work dating back to 2800 BC approximately, which describes various plant medicaments and instructions on their use. Hippocrates (460 BC),the Greek physician and father of modern medicine also listed several hundred herbal remedies.

In recent years, researchers like O.C. Dutt, G. Watt, R.N. Chopra, K.R. Kirtikar, B.D. Basu, B. Mukherjee, the editors of Wealth of India, and many others who have interest in plants and herbs, have done laborious and commendable work in compiling details of Indian medicinal plants. The studies conducted by these scholars have confirmed many of the claims of ancient herbalists about the efficacy of several herbs in curing diseases.

Herbs play a significant role, specially in modern times, when the damaging effects of food processing and over-medication have assumed alarming proportions. They are now being increasingly used in cosmetics, foods and teas, as well as alternative medicines. The growing interest in herbs is a part of the movement towards change in life-styles. This movement is based on the belief that the plants have a vast potential for their use as a curative medicine.


Herbs are used in many different ways. However, the ultimate objective of their use is that they should interact directly with our body chemistry. They may be used in various forms like food, medicine, cosmetics, or fragrance, but in all cases, their active constituents must be absorbed into the body for deriving the required benefits. Once they are absorbed in the bloodstream, they circulate to influence our whole system. The skill of the herbalist is to use this effect to balance and strengthen the body's own healing mechanism instead of suppressing or disturbing it, as many modern drugs tend to do.

The active constituents of the herb can enter the body in several ways. These include consuming the herb orally so as to be absorbed by the digestive system, application on skin through medicinal poultices as well as cosmetics for being absorbed in the body through the pores; application on eyes through lotions and compresses; smelling the aroma through nose to enable the essential oil being absorbed in the bloodstream.

Finally, a word of caution. While most herbs have little or no harmful side effects, some herbs may cause slightly undesirable reactions in some persons. Therefore, try only one herb at a time, beginning in small doses and wait and watch for side effects. If there are none, increase the use or dosage cautiously. Also, not all herbal applications are effective in every case in every person. And in no case should these be used as substitutes for professional medical attention in emergencies or serious chronic diseases.


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