What is Herbal Medicine and How Does it Work?

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In this article, we will investigate and explain how herbal medicine achieves the incredible feat of triggering healing in the body. We will look at the origins of traditional medicine systems and briefly outline how they operate. We also touch on how modern science is actively investigating and continually understanding more about how these incredible plants promote healing.

Herbal Medicine dates back many thousands of years and has been recorded in almost every culture on earth. Every system of Traditional Medicine has been built on the pretext that mankind is intrinsically and energetically connected to the environment, and that plants, as medicine can provide balance and connection with the healing energy or life force. Balance and harmony between body, mind and spirit is central to the practice and systems of traditional and herbal medicine.    

Traditional medicine is “the knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”.

neanderthals with Herbs

Discovered in 1994, the skeletal remains of at least 13 individuals dating back around 47,300 to 50,600 years were discovered. The results, published in Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature, provide the first molecular evidence for medicinal plants being used by a Neanderthals. Dr Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York’s BioArCh research facility, said: “The evidence indicating this individual was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste.”(8)

There are many different systems of traditional medicine, and the philosophy and practices of each are influenced by the prevailing conditions, environment, and geographic area within which it first evolved, however, a common philosophy is a holistic approach to life, equilibrium of the mind, body, spirit, and the environment, and an emphasis on health rather than on disease. 

Generally, the focus is on the overall condition of the individual, rather than on the particular ailment or disease from which the patient is suffering, and the use of therapeutic herbs is central to all systems of traditional medicine.

Indigenous cultures embrace traditional medicine as a preferred form of healthcare in many parts of the world as it holds a more holistic approach to healing, including the interconnection of mind, body, and spirit in a specific context. For centuries, traditional medicine was the only approach to health and illness across different cultures. Traditional medical systems focus on the relationship between spirituality, healing, illness and landscape. (10)

Such systems are deeply influenced by history, environment, places, attitudes, philosophy and traditional healing practices. Scholars have attempted to investigate and characterise traditional medical systems through different health models and theories healing approaches and alternative therapies and treatments. (10)

In addition, many theories and traditional healing practices have been researched based on traditional Chinese philosophies, native American healing, Australian aboriginal practices, and Indigenous Māori of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Although a wide range of views and opinions from Indigenous peoples were reported across these studies, some commonalities were identified. (10)

Many studies have identified a set of health practices and approaches embedded in the knowledge and beliefs of a cultural group, incorporating plant, animal and/or mineral-based medicines, spiritual techniques, healing techniques and exercises, often transmitted orally from generation to generation with the intent to solve health problems and maintain well-being. However, in contrast, Western-based medicine places little emphasis is placed on cultural values and beliefs associated with healing and relegates the importance of place and landscape. (

For much of the world, traditional medicine, of which herbal medicine is a core part is the only system of health care available or affordable. Plants, herbs, and botanicals have been used since the early days of humankind and are still used throughout the world for health promotion and treatment of disease. 

Plants and natural sources still largely form the basis of today’s modern medicine and contribute largely to the commercial drug preparations manufactured today. Between 25% and 50% of drugs prescribed worldwide are derived from plants, and up to 80% of the worlds population rely on herbal medicine systems for their primary healthcare. 

In 2014 The World Health Organisation introduced the ‘traditional medicine strategy’ that aims to support countries in developing proactive policies and implementing action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy. (9)  

Herbal Medicine is growing in popularity in modern times due to the fact that it is completely  natural, largely safe and free from side effects. The other major bonus from using Herbal Medicine is that it gives your body the opportunity to heal itself by supporting healthy functions. 

This is something modern pharmaceutical medicine still struggles to achieve successfully, due the vast array of negative side effects produced by the use synthetic and singular component drugs. Also because the chemistry and components of our body are made naturally and originate from nature itself natural herbs are better incorporated into the body’s healing mechanisms. 

Scientists are still searching today for new drugs in the plant kingdom. For example, more than 20,000 species of plants are used in traditional medicines, alleged to be all potential reservoirs for new drugs and are considered a potential source of chemical constituents with anti-cancer activities. (2)   

Herbal Medicine is the practice of using plant material and plant extracts for the purpose of sustaining or restoring health. Plant parts used include roots, leaves, bark, flowers, fruit or any other plant part that contains the active compound required medicinally.

Since the times of the hunter, gatherer mankind has known about the drug effect of plants. Sick animals were followed and found to eat specific plants when convalescing. These herbs are often found to have benefits to humans as well.

Even the Bible speaks of Herbal Medicine “And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat and the leaf thereof for medicine.”  Ezekiel 47:12 


Traditional Systems of Herbal Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine
Although it is not clear when TCM originated, it is believed to be the result of a continuous series of observations and works, with one of the most important domains being the use of herbs toward medicinal purposes, or Materia Medica. The Chinese Materia Medica (Compendium of Materia Medica, or Ben Cao Gang Mu) compiled by Li Shi Zhen (1518–1593) includes works dating back as early as 1100 BCE, and gathers more than 1800 entries with over 11,000 formulae. It is considered as the most complete reference in herbal information for medicinal application in TCM. Archaeological evidence has been dated back to the Shang era during the Bronze Age (16th to 11th century BCE), although it is not completely clear whether herbal medicine was used at that time. (6)

Previously, several works developed in the framework of the TCM philosophy and application, which were based not only on Materia Medica, but also on other practices such as acupuncture, moxibustion, tuna massage, and qigong exercise. The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Neijing) was compiled during a period including the late Warring States period (475–221 BCE) and the early Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE). It is believed to be the earliest and most important piece of Chinese ancient medicine work. Written under the form of a dialog between the Yellow Emperor and his acupuncturist Qi Bo, one important figure in his government among other ministers, it depicts the philosophy and basics of TCM, without making reference to the magical and shamanistic beliefs. Instead, it is centered on means to develop a natural equilibrium of the body and mind through a balanced lifestyle, and thus to reach wellness and health. 

The essence of TCM lies in its foundation in spirituality, religion, and philosophy, making it quite different from Western medicine and leading it to be viewed by some as magical and mysterious. Chinese medicine is an ancient discipline with a long developmental history and is very much influenced by religion and spirituality. the underlying premise of Chinese medicine is that the mind and body of a person are inseparable.

To be in good health, a person must have good spirit and pay attention to cultivating their spirit. Chinese doctors see “people” not “diseases” and equate “curing diseases” with “curing people.” (5)

Ayurveda is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing.” It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples. Some of this knowledge was set to print a few thousand years ago, but much of it is inaccessible. The principles of many of the natural healing systems now familiar in the West have their roots in Ayurveda. (7)

Ayurveda does not focus on disease. Rather, Ayurveda maintains that all life must be supported by energy in balance. When there is minimal stress and the flow of energy within a person is balanced, the body’s natural defence systems will be strong and can more easily defend against disease. (7) 

Recommendations may include the implementation of lifestyle changes; starting and maintaining a suggested diet; and the use of herbs. In some cases, participating in a cleansing program, called panchakarma, is suggested to help the body rid itself of accumulated toxins to gain more benefit from the various suggested measures of treatment. In summary, Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life — the body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that each of us is unique, each responds differently to the many aspects of life, each possesses different strengths and weaknesses. Through insight, understanding and experience Ayurveda presents a vast wealth of information on the relationships between causes and their effects, both immediate and subtle, for each unique individual. (7)

Western Herbal Medicine

Western Herbal Medicine
Western Herbal Medicine (WHM) is a clinical practice of healing using naturally occurring plant material or plants with little or no industrial processing. Medicines or extracts from crude plant material, such as root, bark, and flower, are used in multiple plant formulations to treat persons with disease and dysfunction and to promote health and well-being.

Although practices labeled as witchcraft began before this date, the Old Testament of the Bible first introduced the idea of witchcraft to the world in writing around 500 BCE.

Empedocles, a Greek philosopher, developed the theory of “The Four Roots” which became the medical dogma for the next 2,000 years. (11)

Plato, a later Greek philosopher, further developed these roots into “The Four Elements” (12)

Hippocrates (400 BC) , and later Galen (100 AD), both Greek physicians, further developed them into “The Four Humors”. In a nutshell, these ideas introduced the idea that human constitution is based on various combinations of elements. (13)

Picture from 'Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine' By Susan Francia & Anne Stobart

These perspectives by Empedocles, Plato, and Hippocrates all paved the way for Unani-Tibb medical system, developed by the famous Persian physician Hakim Ibn Sina around 1000 CE. The four humors and the Unani-Tibb tradition continue to be practiced today, and have influenced modern Western herbalism. (14) 

WHM is a title recently used to differentiate herbalism based on Anglo-American traditional herbal medicine from other systems of herbal medicine such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Representing varied and diverse groups of practitioners, WHM is also referred to as traditional Western herbalism, herbal or botanical medicine, medical herbalism and phytotherapy. WHM is practised mainly in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Western Europe. (4) 

Rongoā Māori
The indigeneous medicine of Aotearoa, New Zealand. most fundamental part of rongoā Māori is the traditional spiritual teachings, which can be seen as the basis of all traditional medicine. For Māori, rongoā is a part of the Māori culture from Tāne (God of the forest) who retrieved the three baskets of knowledge from Io (God) with the knowledge and teachings to guide us in this world. (15) 

As Māori, we believe we are part of the children of Tāne, along with the creatures of the forest such as the birds, trees and plants and, therefore, we have a strong connection to rongoā rākau. To learn rongoā, people have to become apart of the world of Tāne. They become connected and immersed in the forest, learning about a relationship far beyond the physical elements of the trees and plants. To utilise Te Oo Mai Reia, the healer must become immersed in ancient spiritual teachings while becoming a vessel to achieve the healing through Io alongside the use of physical touch to create balance and shift energies. (15)

Although, Māori traditional medicine is more widely known for the medicinal properties from the native trees and plants, which is often used to address acute pain, the most fundamental part of all rongoā is the spiritual component. The spiritual healing focuses more on the cause of pain, using techniques such as massage and prayers to help release negative energies. (15)

 Māori, we believe we are part of the children of Tāne, along with the creatures of the forest such as the birds, trees and plants and, therefore, we have a strong connection to rongoā rākau. (15)

For rongoā rākau to be utilised, the rongoā practitioner will have knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants and trees and the safe practices. Their awareness of how to care for themselves when healing their patient is also important.

For rongoā rākau to be used safely, the practitioner must be open to the Māori world, first and foremost karakia. Rongoā can be harvested differently iwi by iwi and healers will generally have their own special place they will harvest from. (15)

Herbal Medicine Around the World
Just about every culture throughout history has a traditional medicine based around herbal medicine, and the healing arts. I have only listed a very few below, but this gives you some idea as to the depth and reach of herbal medicine on our planet.

Click the links to see more.
Aboriginal Bush Medicine
Arab Herbal Medicine
Native American Medicine
Celtic Herbal Medicine
Aztec medicine
Mexican Traditional Medicine
African Traditional Medicine
Traditional Japanese Kampo Medicine
Russian Traditional Medicine
Traditional Alaska Native medicine
Hawaiian Herbal Medicine

The History of Modern Medicine – The First Drugs

The first traces of medicine in the Middle-Eastern area date back almost 4 millennia to Ancient Egypt, with the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus: 1800 BCE, the Edwin Smith Papyrus: 1600 BCE, and the Ebers Papyrus: 1550 BCE. Back then, the explanation and treatment of all sorts of diseases was based on sacred and spiritual beliefs. Thus, healing of patients involved a mix of prayers, magic practices, and herbal mixtures. (6)

Egyptian physicians, mostly priests, developed early surgery and anatomy knowledge thanks to the dissection of human bodies. Later during Antiquity, in the Greek civilization, Hippocrates (ca. 470–471 BCE) was the first to reject divine causality in medicine and to develop a new approach to diseases based on scientific observation of the human body. (6)

Hippocrates work was in opposition with the mainstream Aesclepian beliefs, based on religion. This marked the first split between science-based and religion-based medicine, and Hippocrates is nowadays considered as the Father of Medicine—the Hippocratic Oath being an ethical reference and motto in the medical community worldwide. (6)

Galen, a Greek physician, later contributed to the expansion of Greek medical knowledge within the Roman Empire, which became the dominant reference for more than a millennium. Indeed, after the fall of Rome, medicine did not evolve significantly for centuries, and most of its practice remained based on religious practices. However, the knowledge build by Greek Medicine was transmitted and preserved within Arabic Medicine during the medieval times, and was brought as far as the Indian subcontinent with the Mughal invasions. (6)

Not until the Renaissance did medicine experience a significant revival based upon a better understanding of anatomy and the functions of organisms (neurology, blood circulation). (6)

Herbal Medicine Capsules

What medicines do plants contain?

Plants contain therapeutic compounds called Phyto-chemicals. We all know about substances like caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and opium. These are examples of pyto-chemicals. There are thousands of different phyto-chemicals which are applied in herbal medicine and each plant is unique.

These compounds range from simple fiber, gel, and proteins, to complex neurotransmitters and cell-specific immune modulators and hormonal mediators. We will not go into all of the different types of compounds in this article as there are literally tens of thousands.

For example, an extract from the bark of the white willow tree had been used for centuries to treat various fevers and inflammation. The active principle in white willow, salicin or salicylic acid, had a bitter taste and irritated the gastric mucosa, but with a simple chemical modification was much more palatable. This was acetylsalicylic acid, better known as Aspirin®, the first blockbuster drug. At the start of the twentieth century, the first of the barbiturate family of drugs entered the pharmacopeia and the rest, as they say, is history. (1)

Penicillin was first discovered by accident when fungi appeared to inhibit the growth of bacteria in a Petrie dish. The native bush in New Zealand is currently being searched for the next super antibiotic from potential native fungi. Herbs have played a major role in medicine since man first walked the earth and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

Click here for a short list of some Plant Phyto-Chemicals


Herbal Medicine Multi-faceted Pharmacology

What makes plant medicine superior in many cases is that plants are uniquely composed of an exact cocktail of several compounds, not just one isolated chemical, like a pharmaceutical. This means that the effect is more balanced, and that side effects are averted. This allows the body to heal and recover naturally. The problem with conventional man made drugs is the many side effects and eventual toxicity, which can cause more harm than good in the long-term.

When a herbal medicine is used the effect is much more gentle, balanced and healing. Usually, the organ or system being treated is supported and encouraged to function properly. This means after a course of treatment with a herbal medicine the body is potentially healed. The herbal treatment can then often be stopped without a rebound effect or relapse.

This is usually not the case with artificial drugs.

The choice to follow a course of herbal treatment usually involves more commitment from the patient, as dietary and lifestyle changes are required to get the best results.



Home Remedies

Another great thing about herbal medicine is that you can find a lot you can do yourself at home. You can grow plants such as these for your home pharmacy:

  • Aloe Vera: for healing burns and wounds
  • Lavender: for congestion, coughs, and colds
  • Comfrey: for aches pains and damaged joints
  • Feverfew: avoid migraine headaches
  • Dandelion or Nettle leaves: keep the kidneys clear of stones

You can make your own cough mixtures, healing lotions, herbal teas and much more. It’s really just a matter of doing some research and taking control of your health.

There are also many herbs and spices from the pantry that have medicinal value.

  • Rosemary: protects the brain
  • Thyme: to keep away the viruses
  • Turmeric: A powerful anti-inflammatory
  • Cloves: Kills stomach bugs and intestinal parasites
  • Ginger: Calms the stomach and improves circulation
  • Cayenne: Improves heart function and relieves stomach ulcers
  • Fennel seeds: Soothe bloating and indigestion
  • Chamomile and Peppermint teas: Relaxing and Calming, reduce indigestion

The list goes on and on, but the real point is that we should always look first to the most simple solution. If that does not work then look further. I guess in the end it’s a matter of using what you have available at home when and where possible to prevent problems from escalating and turning to other alternatives such as supplements and then pharmaceuticals as an absolute last resort.

Once your acute symptoms have been addressed your herbal practitioner should guide you towards local solutions, including home remedies and dietary sources of herbal medicines that you can use long-term for maintain your health. 


List of Herbs and Spices and their active constituents.

Click to expand
Active constituents in herbs and spices

Preventative Medicine

Herbal medicine often falls into the category of preventative medicine. This means it can be used on a long-term basis to strengthen and tone the organs, tissues, and glands. Examples of this approach are tonic herbs such as Ginseng and Ginkgo for brain health or Bitters for digestive health.

Herbal medicine is usually given in three stages.

1. Treat the symptoms to provide quick relief. (high doses can be used for a few days)
2. Treat the underlying cause or imbalance. (moderate doses over several weeks)
3. Treat the person as a whole, support the constitution. (maintenance doses over a lifetime)

Once you find the right herbs for you and your needs you can keep taking them for life, maybe with a top up once a year for a re-balance, cleanse or boost. Then you have a recipe for long-term health and the avoidance of complications throughout life. This is preventative medicine in a nutshell.

Possibly the greatest thing about herbal medicine is that you can learn about the herbs yourself and eventually feel empowered to largely take control of your own health.

Enjoy the journey.


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