The government’s announcement today that it would bypass EU legislation in order to stop hundreds of perfectly useful herbs disappearing off the shelves of our health foods shops came as welcome news to the more than six million UK customers who consult herbal medicine practitioners.
Under the new plans, herbal medicine practitioners will have to sign up to a register, by law.
But just why is herbal medicine so important to such a large section of the population? What is herbal medicine and does it really work?
What is herbal medicine?
Plants have been used by people all over the world for thousands of years, and there is in fact evidence of plant use going back to prehistoric times.
Over the centuries, more and more plants have been ‘tried’ for different conditions, sometimes with negative effects, until today when we now have a very comprehensive list of ‘safe’ plants and their benefits.
There are several traditions of herbal medicine in use around the world today – the ayurvedic system from India, Chinese herbal medicine, the system based on Greek and Roman sources, Unani Tibb medicine and shamanic herbalism.
However, plants are also used in a great many common drugs used by conventional medical practices, such as opium and aspirin. And it is estimated by the World Health Organisation that 80 per cent of the world’s population uses herbal medicine in some form or another within primary health care.
How does herbal medicine work?
Herbal medicine can be looked at from two viewpoints:
First, plants are commonly used by pharmaceutical companies for a huge number of common drugs, therefore indicating that we make use of herbal medicine in our everyday lives.
But secondly, there is the use of herbal medicine in more ancient traditions. This is practised by herbalists, and is more a form of alternative medicine using the plant in its raw form.
Herbalists will have an extensive knowledge of which plants can be used for which conditions and may treat a client with just one herb or a combination of several, depending on the illness.
Is herbal medicine an effective form of therapy?
Over the last 15 years, there has been a huge rise in the number of studies and/or research papers written on herbal medicine and its effectiveness. But coming to an overall conclusion on whether or not herbal medicine is an effective form of therapy seems to be difficult because of the standards of testing.
However, many plants are already used in conventional medical practices and commonly used drugs, proving that these particular ones have been tested for efficacy.
It should only be a matter of time before testing is conducted to a certain standard. In the meantime, the fact that herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years would tend to suggest that it must be good for something!
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