Long before recorded history, early humans undoubtedly used plants and plant products not only for food but also for medicine. Between 8000 and 5000 B.C., early people are known to have gathered or cultivated numerous plants, many of which had medicinal qualities.
The folk medicine traditions of all cultures include the use of plants and plant products. Knowledge of herbs and herbal remedies has been handed down from generation to generation and from culture to culture. Ancient cultures—such as the Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Syrian—developed detailed pharmacopoeias (books describing medical preparations) that included many commonly used herbs.
In the Orient, the Chinese developed a complete system of herbal medicine called Chinese herbology. The earliest work, the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Di Nei Ching) was recorded around 2,300 years ago. Like other aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese herbology is based on the principle of restoring balance to the individual's vital energy, which is called qi (pronounced "chee"). Chinese herbology remains a distinct form of herbalism today.
In the West, the Egyptians developed and recorded herbal medicinal systems. The Kahun Medical Papyrus dates back to 1800 B.C. Hippocrates and other early Greek physicians used herbs and other natural remedies to heal their patients. Some of their knowledge was based on early Egyptian herbal medicine. The work of the early Egyptian and Greek healers evolved into what is now considered Western herbalism.
European settlers brought their herbs and herbal remedies with them to this country. They also brought herbals—books on herbal medicine. The settlers learned about the herbs of the New World from the Native Americans and through their own observations. In 1751, John Bartram, one of the most respected botanists of the colonial era, published a list of indigenous North American plants and their uses.
Even into the early 20th century, much of the pharmacopoeia of conventional medical practitioners was based on the herbal lore of native peoples. Many of the drugs we commonly use today are of herbal origin. It is estimated that 75 percent of modern drugs were originally derived from plants and that about 20 percent still are. With the rise of modern medicine, herbal and other natural remedies fell out of popularity for a time.
With the immense popular interest in alternative medicine over the last three decades, interest in and demand for herbal products has skyrocketed. In Europe (especially England, Germany, and Switzerland), botanicals have long been considered important complements to conventional drugs. Herbal remedies are also more generally accepted and used in Australia, Japan, India, China, and some African countries. The United States is just beginning to catch up with the rest of the world in recognizing the value of the medicinal use of herbs.
Throughout the history of humanity, men and women have practiced herbalism on a daily basis. The World Health Organization (WHO), which is the medical branch of the United Nations, estimates that 80 percent of the world's population presently uses traditional healing practices that include herbal medicine in some way in primary health care.
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