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What Should I Know About Herbal Medicine?

By L. Hepfer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Herbal medicine dates back to the days of Hippocrates, 460-377 BCE. Hippocrates took an oath to practice herbal medicine to the best of his ability, and to teach the ways to those who wished to learn. He believed in natural healing and was an herbal practitioner. He used no minerals, except salt, which was considered by some physicians to be a mineral. His methods of treatments continued until approximately 1500 A.D.

Hippocrates believed that diseases were only caused naturally, therefore, they could also be cured naturally. He insisted that physicians were only nature's helpers. He treated patients with herbs, proper diet and exercise, fresh air, and made a point to encourage patients to correct bad habits and living conditions. His writings contained approximately 300-400 different plants and about one-third of those plants are still being used today. His oath is still used by modern day practitioners.

The Greek god, Apollo, was believed to have the ability to bring on illness and plagues. Asclepios was the legendary son of Apollo who became the Greek and Roman god of healing. Temples all over Greece and Rome became dedicated to Asclepios where religious rituals were performed, mixed with spa-like practices. The majority of illnesses treated were psychologically based and most cures involved one's faith. Asclepios' family was involved in health and healing, often practicing the ways of herbal medicine.

Other early healers involved Scribonius Largus, a Roman who lived during the reign of Nero. He wrote a book about a cure-all formula containing 61 ingredients. As time passed, more ingredients became used for healing in preventing illness, but also treating infections, pestilences, poisonous bites and all manner of plagues. Opium became well known at this point and was widely used.

Avicenna was one of the most influential Arabic contributors to herbal medicine until the time of his death in 1037 CE. He believed there was a specific plant somewhere in the world to cure each illness. He traveled from Persia to collect hundreds of herbs, their roots, and seeds.

Near the end of the 15th century, William Bombast von Hohenheim was a physician and chemist living in Europe. While he taught his son the same medical practices and raised him in the same schools as himself, his son, Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, wandered Europe learning chemistry and alchemy and how they related to medicine. He discovered the means to treat patients with minerals and was one of the first physicians to give his patients mercury.

This type of practice began taking the place of herbal medicine. Herbalists from Great Britain are considered to be botanic practitioners, successors from Greek physicians like Hippocrates. More conventional doctors of today tend to practice more like Bombast von Hohenheim, leaning toward purifying the body through minerals. The various methods of practicing have been passed on through generations.

In 1926, large stone slabs were found in a tomb by the pyramids in Egypt. It has been discovered that probably one-third of medicinal plants were known and used by the Egyptians. The American Indians have used all kinds of herbs, roots and barks for healing and continue to practice herbal medicine today. Over time the orthodox medical establishments of Europe and North America have moved away from natural methods of healing and more toward relying on chemical combinations given through prescriptions by doctors. Herbal medicine is not widely known as it once used to be and isn't practiced nearly as much.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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