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Optimal Health Dynamics
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American Holistic Medical Association
Years of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants is now supplemented
By Lisa James
The year is 1709, and you live on a remote farm in a British North American colony. Your stomach is badly unsettled. You could see a physician, but if you are poor (as most people were then) that really isn’t an option. So you visit the local herbalist, a layperson with a special knowledge of plant-based remedies. That person asks about your specific symptoms: Is your stomach acidic, indicating excess heat? Do you have gas when you eat, indicating dryness? Your answers determine the herb you would receive: angelica in the first case, perhaps, and maybe caraway seed in the second.
The year is 2009, and you live a hectic life in a large American metro area. Your stomach has been giving you fits; you try all the over-the-counter stuff before finally visiting a physician, who orders a number of tests. The news is good, sort of: no infection, no inflammation, nothing physically wrong.
You’ve been given a diagnosis of functional dyspepsia, a fancy way of saying indigestion without an identifiable cause. Still in discomfort, you visit an herbalist. That person respects the traditionalist approach in which whole herbs maintain a place of honor. But he or she is also aware of research in which an herbal formula that employs both angelica and caraway, along with seven other herbs, has helped ease functional dyspepsia. What’s more, the herbalist inquires about what else is going on in your life—and makes recommendations on how to reduce your stress levels, which provides a more lasting basis for relief of your touchy stomach.
The system of herbal medicine that took root in Europe combines knowledge traceable back to the ancient world with local practices. This healing tradition made its way to North America with the first European settlers, where it met the rich plant lore of the Native Americans. Almost lost in the 19th century, herbalism underwent a revival 40 years ago. Today, Western herbal practice is learning how to combine its traditional remedies with studies that support the remarkable healing power of plants.
The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Herbalism
The Greek physician Hippocrates was the first person in Europe to take a non-magical approach to healing. Out of his work grew the idea of four bodily humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm—that had to be in equal proportion for good health. Treatment of sickness meant bringing these humors back into balance, and plants played an important role in that process. Humorism was systemized in the second century AD by Galen, a physician born in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey).
In the 15th century another physician, Paracelsus of Switzerland, was “the first one to advocate chemical medicine,” says Phyllis D. Light, RH (AHG) of the Appalachian Center for Herbal Studies in ...