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Before there was penicillin, before there were CAT scans and before there was Viagra, there were herbs. The medicinal history of every civilization in every part of the globe owes a debt to these powerful, but often overlooked natural wonders. Today, about 80% of the worlds population uses herbs as their only source of health care. Yet here in North America, they wallow in the fringes, their full potential untapped.

Herbs contain many of the nutrients that we are deprived of in our modern life. Often we try and replace them with processed pills and treatments. While effective, these remedies can be confusing, costly and ridden with side effects. Often herbs can be just as powerful, but far milder, and have millennia of results as proof of their merit.

While herbs are by no means a quick fix cure-all, their worth has stood the test of time. A testament to power of herbs is that they can also be dangerous if not used properly. You should always do a little research before embarking on a herb treatment. If you have any hesitations at all, please consult a registered naturopath or doctor.

The word "herbs" refers to any part of any plant used for flavoring or medicine. People have sought all kinds of medicinal help through herbs for thousands of years. Herbs have the advantage of being natural remedies. Unlike drugs, which come with all kinds of risks and side effects, herbs can realign the body's defenses and help it heal itself. Herbs are generally safe and pose few, if any, side effects.

People who research and recommend herbs are called herbalists. Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness.

Herbal Medicine Systems
Today’s most popular herbal medicine systems are:

  • Western
  • European
  • Native
  • Chinese
  • Ayurvedic

The differences in these systems lie mainly in terminology and types of herbs used. For example, Western herbal medicine considers how herbs act upon specific body parts and systems, while Chinese herbal medicine considers how herbs act upon chi (a Chinese term that loosely translates into “life force”). Ayurvedic medicine (based on the ancient scientific tradition from India, older than any other recorded body of human knowledge) believes that herbs can help the body live in harmony with the external universe. All of the systems, however, treat the body as a whole system—that is, rather than target one specific area, they believe in achieving a holistic healing effect throughout the body. In general, herbs are used for energy, for maintaining the body’s natural immune system and for preventing and treating ailments and disease.

What do herbs do?
Specific functions of herbs, according to the Western (American) system, include:

  • Cleansing the body
  • Regulating and toning the glands
  • Providing the body with vitamins and minerals
  • Boosting energy levels
  • Promoting “good” bacteria in the body

Herbs convert substances from the earth into vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that our bodies use for nourishment and healing. Most herbs contain several active substances, one of which is primarily responsible for that herb’s healing benefits. Usually, though, the herb contains many ingredients that bring “secondary” benefits or treat other conditions in the body as well.

Classifying herbs
There are many ways to classify herbs. One popular way in Western herbal traditions is to classify them according to the type of active ingredient they contain:

  • Aromatic (volatile oils)
  • Astringent (tannins)
  • Bitter (phenol compounds, saponins and alkaloids)
  • Mucilaginous (polysaccharides)
  • Nutritive (food stuffs)

This category system is useful when needing to substitute one herb for another.

Some herbal systems also perceive herbs to have varying combinations of the qualities heating or cooling and drying or moistening. Heating herbs are believed to produce warmth in the body. This category includes all aromatic herbs and many of the bitter herbs. Cooling herbs, on the other hand, are believed to take heat away from some part of the body. This category includes herbs that contain highly volatile oils. Drying herbs are astringent or diuretic herbs. Usually, aromatic herbs fall into this category. Meanwhile, mucilaginous herbs are considered moistening.

Regulation of herbs
Traditional herbology uses empirical observation, rather than laboratory analysis, to investigate healing methods and herbs. In European herbal medicine, herbs are checked by the German Commission E, a team of scientists, physicians, pharmacists and toxologists who check the medical benefits of herbs and watch out for drug interatctions. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which licenses all substances thought to be medically benefticial for use in the United States, does not recognize or accept findings from other countries. Since much more research is carried out on herbs in China and Europe than in the U.S., many herbs do not get FDA approval in spite of their safety and benefits.

Herbs in conventional medicine
Herbal medicine has a long tradition. Many familiar medications of the twentieth century were developed from ancient healing traditions that treated health problems with specific plants. Rather than using a whole plant, however, pharmacologists extract and combine individual components to capture its active properties. This process is problematic, as it potentially eliminates any or all of the minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids, bioflavanoids, and other substances that contribute to the medicinal properties of a particular herb. Most of the research that is done on plants and herbs continues to focus on isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of entire plants. Herbalists, however, consider that the interaction of all its ingredients is responsible for the healing powers of a given plant.

Herb forms
Herbs come in a variety of forms:

  • Fresh root
  • Dried root
  • Tablets—contain ground or powdered form of the raw herb; less potent than tinctures.
  • Capsules—contain ground or powdered form of the raw herb; less potent than tinctures.
  • Tea—loose versions of herb ready for steeping, or ready-made tea bags containing herb.
  • Tincture—contains active extracted ingredients of the herb dissolved in alcohol.
  • Bath
  • Compress
  • Ointment
  • Lozenges—herbal based, naturally sweetened candies.

Growing herbs
Herbs can be wild-grown or organically grown. Wild-grown herbs grow in their natural habitat without human interference. However, no guarantee exists that such herbs have not been exposed to pesticides or other pollutants. Organically grown herbs, meanwhile, grow on farms under the careful supervision of highly knowledgeable farmers.

Herb administration
In general, herbs, when taken in recommended doses, tend not to produce adverse reactions. Severe side effects usually occur only when very large doses of the herb are taken and/or when the herb is taken for too long a time. Many herbs work best when two to three week pauses are made during treatment. Others should be given only during specific periods, such as during times of illness.

Herb fraud
Some herbalists recommend using the fresh root forms of herbs, when available, to avoid “fake” herbal products. Cases have been reported of herbal preparations that contain no actual active ingredient. Buying a standardized product when purchasing tinctures, capsule, or tablets may reduce the possibility of this occurrence. Look for products that are clearly labeled with the ingredients contained and amounts.

Acidophilus Acidophilus
Amino acids Amino acids
Antioxidants Antioxidants
B Vitamins B Vitamins
Beta Carotene Beta Carotene
Bilberry Bilberry
Bilberry Products Bilberry Products
Blessed Thistle Blessed Thistle
Blue Cohosh Blue Cohosh
Blue Vervain Herb Blue Vervain Herb
Borage Borage
Boswellia Boswellia
Bran / Fiber Bran / Fiber
Burdock Root Burdock Root
Butcherís Broom Butcherís Broom
C Vitamins C Vitamins
Calcium Calcium
Cascara Sagrada Cascara Sagrada
Catís Claw Catís Claw
Cayenne (Capsicum) Cayenne (Capsicum)
Celery Seed Celery Seed
Chamomile Flowers Chamomile Flowers
Chasteberry Chasteberry
Cherry Bark Cherry Bark
Chickweed Chickweed
Cinnamon Bark Cinnamon Bark
Codonopsis Codonopsis
Coenzyme q-10 Coenzyme q-10
Comfrey Comfrey
Cornsilk Cornsilk
Cranberry Cranberry
Cranberry products Cranberry products
Damiana Leaves Damiana Leaves
Dandelion Dandelion
Devilís Claw Devilís Claw
Digestion Herbs Digestion Herbs
Diuretics Diuretics
Dong Quai Root Dong Quai Root
Echinacea Echinacea
Echinacea Echinacea
EFA & fish oil EFA & fish oil
Elder Flower Elder Flower
Elderberry Elderberry
Elecampane Root Elecampane Root
Energy Herbs Energy Herbs
Enzymes Enzymes
Evening Primrose Evening Primrose
Eyebright Eyebright
Fennel Fennel
Fenugreek Fenugreek
Feverfew Leaves Feverfew Leaves
Flaxseed (Linseed) Flaxseed (Linseed)
Fo-Ti Fo-Ti
Forskohli (Coleus Forskohli) Forskohli (Coleus Forskohli)
Garlic Garlic
Gingko Biloba Gingko Biloba
Ginseng Ginseng
Glucosamine / Chondroitin Glucosamine / Chondroitin
Gotu Kola Gotu Kola
Green Tea Green Tea
Guarana Guarana
Guggal Guggal
Gymnema Sylvestre Gymnema Sylvestre
Hawthorn Hawthorn
Hayfever Herbs Hayfever Herbs
Horehound Horehound
Horse Chestnut Horse Chestnut
Horsetail Grass Horsetail Grass
Hydrangea Root Hydrangea Root
Hyssop Hyssop
Indigo Root Indigo Root
Juniper Berries Juniper Berries
Kava Kava Kava Kava
Kidney Herbs Kidney Herbs
Kudzu Root Kudzu Root
L-Carnitine L-Carnitine
Lavender Lavender
Laxatives Laxatives
Lecithin Lecithin
Lemon Balm Lemon Balm
Licorice Root Licorice Root
Linden Linden
Lobelia Lobelia
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Marshmallow Root Marshmallow Root
Milk Thistle Milk Thistle
Milk Thistle Milk Thistle
Motherwort Motherwort
Motion Sickness Herbs Motion Sickness Herbs
Muira Puama Root Muira Puama Root
Mullein Mullein
Nettle Nettle
Nettle Leaves Nettle Leaves
Noni Noni
Oats Oats
Oleo-gum-resin Oleo-gum-resin
Olive Leaf Olive Leaf
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Oregano Oregano
Oregon Grape Root Oregon Grape Root
Pancreatic Enzymes Pancreatic Enzymes
Pancreatin Pancreatin
Pantethine Pantethine
Pantothenic Acid Pantothenic Acid
Papain Papain
Papaya Papaya
Para-aminobenzoic Acid Para-aminobenzoic Acid
Parsley Herb Parsley Herb
Passion Flower Passion Flower
Pau DíArco Pau DíArco
Pennyroyal Pennyroyal
Peppermint Peppermint
Phenylalanine Phenylalanine
Phosphatidylcholine Phosphatidylcholine
Phosphatidylserine Phosphatidylserine
Phylloquinone Phylloquinone
Phytonadione Phytonadione
Phytosterols (Beta-Sitosterol) Phytosterols (Beta-Sitosterol)
Plant Sterols (Beta-Sitosterol) Plant Sterols (Beta-Sitosterol)
Plantain Leaf Plantain Leaf
Pleurisy Root Pleurisy Root
Potassium Potassium
Pregnenolone Pregnenolone
Prickly Pear (Opuntia) Prickly Pear (Opuntia)
Proanthocyanidins Proanthocyanidins
Probiotics Probiotics
Procyanidolic Oligomers (PCOs) Procyanidolic Oligomers (PCOs)
Progesterone Progesterone
Propionyl-L-Carnitine Propionyl-L-Carnitine
Propolis Propolis
Prostrate Herbs Prostrate Herbs
Protein (Soy) Protein (Soy)
Protein (Whey) Protein (Whey)
Proteolytic Enzymes Proteolytic Enzymes
Psyllium Psyllium
Pygeum Pygeum
Pyridoxal-5-phosphate Pyridoxal-5-phosphate
Pyridoxine Pyridoxine
Pyruvate Pyruvate
Pyruvic Acid Pyruvic Acid
Red Clover Blossoms Red Clover Blossoms
Red Raspberry Leaves Red Raspberry Leaves
Red Yeast Rice Red Yeast Rice
Rhodiola Rosea Rhodiola Rosea
Rhubarb Root Rhubarb Root
Rose Hips Rose Hips
Rosemary Rosemary
Sage Sage
Sarsaparilla Root Sarsaparilla Root
Saw Palmetto Saw Palmetto
Saw Palmetto Saw Palmetto
Selenium Selenium
Senna Leaves Senna Leaves
Shark Cartilage Shark Cartilage
Skullcap Skullcap
Sleep Herbs Sleep Herbs
Slippery Elm Bark Slippery Elm Bark
Soy Soy
St. Johnís Wort St. Johnís Wort
St. Johnís Wort St. Johnís Wort
Stevia Stevia
Suma Root Suma Root
Tea Tree Oil Tea Tree Oil
Turmeric Turmeric
Valerian Valerian
Vinca Minor (also know as Lesser Periwinkle) Vinca Minor (also know as Lesser Periwinkle)
Vitamin E Vitamin E
Vitex agnus-castus Vitex agnus-castus
White Oak Bark White Oak Bark
Wild Yam Root Wild Yam Root
Willow Bark Willow Bark
Womenís Herbs Womenís Herbs
Wood Betony Wood Betony
Yarrow Yarrow
Yellow Dock Yellow Dock
Yohimbe Yohimbe
Yucca Yucca