Friday, August 13, 2010

Herbal Medicine: What Is It?

The study of plant life and herbs teaches us to see humans as part of nature.  As we interact with plants and nature, our healing obtains.  Herbal medicine is a clinical modality based on using plant medicines as therapeutic tools.  Herbal medicine moves beyond the blind repetition of information in older herbals into a modern understanding of molecular vitality.  Herbs are not drugs and herbal medicine is not based on the pathology-disease reductionist model of modern pharmacological medicine.  Herbal medicine supports body function and tone and is based on the healing properties of the vital force.  We all know what the vital force is and when it is present, but we cannot see it or capture it in a bottle.  Vitality escapes reductionist methods.
Some excellent manuals for understanding herbs and their actions were written by Michael Moore.  Herbs are exogenous agents that cause the body to react through stimulation or suppression of body functions.  Herbal medicine tones the body, which then performs healing functions through vitality.  This approach is similar to the approach used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic systems.  The process in these healing systems is to diagnose excesses or deficiencies of body function and then tone body systems, including organs, stress response, and fluid transport.  The principle of vitalism is to strengthen the person, then treat the problem.
A different conceptual expression of vitalism in herbal medicine was given by J. Treasure, in which there are three groups: food; medicine; and poison.  Food and medicine are passive and interconnected.  They are ingested and acted upon by the body.  They are used with traditional knowledge and evidence of their efficacy is measured by their widespread use and influence on vital force and toning the body.  Poisons are active.  They are ingested and act on the body.  Pharmaceutical drugs are this type and their efficacy is measured by influence on symptoms of disease in clinical trials.  Poisons are the model substance in modern pharmaceutical medicine.
Herbs are not drugs and are not naturally occurring analogs for pharmaceuticals.  Their actions cannot be reduced to the effects of their isolated active constituents.  Stronger acting herbs may be drug-like in action, but are rare.  Herbs have dozens of different compounds that form a matrix which modifies the actions of any specific active constituents.  Herbalists view the whole (vitality) as greater than the sum of the parts.  This is vitalism, which corresponds to modern systems theory in ecosystem science.  
Drugs have specific actions on the body, with side effects of undesired actions.  Herbs have several broad actions on a number of body systems and their actions are complementary or synergistic, with few side effects.  The use of herbs does not involve drug actions or adverse effects.  Instead herbs have contraindications when imbalance between metabolic and systematic constitution and the herb is noticed.  Any use of herbal medicine should carefully consider contraindications as defined by competent herbalistsFurthermore, mixing of herbal medicine and pharmaceutical drugs should only be done with the full knowledge of the drug-prescribing doctor, as herbs can have agonistic or potentiating interactions with drugs.
Clinical research on plant effects favors isolation of individual compounds.  These clinical trials are not appropriate for the investigation of herb action, as they assume drug action, which does not apply to herbal medicine.  Few methods exist for researching the effects of whole plants and their preparations.  Herbal medicine effects occur gently, over time, outside of the context of rapidly acting phytopharmaceuticals.  The present disinformation on supposed negative effects and lack of efficacy for herbs is a result of applying inappropriate research methods to their properties.  New research methods will need to be developed to resolve these questions.  Funding for these methods is limited because of the present inherent bias of laws, medical politics, and ideology against herbal medicine.  The medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex cannot make money off of herbs and the vital force within humans and will do whatever is necessary to suppress herbal medicine.   
Posted by michael

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