The Historical Uses of Herbs: Herbs and Healing

Although no written documentation is available, herbs have probably been used medicinally as far back as the time of cave men who probably gained some knowledge of their effects through trial and error. In fact, some yarrow and hyacinth have actually been found buried with some of these prehistoric people. Clear evidence of herbal use for medicinal purposes is also available in the tombs of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and an ancient papyrus text lists at least seven hundred herbs in use for healing purposes at that time. Some of the most common herbs used were garlic, poppy, caraway seeds, and aloe. History also indicates that herbs were first used for healing only in connection with some accompanying magic.

Most tribal societies had a vast array of medicinal uses for herbs. The American Indian used plants, flowers, and bark for a variety of illnesses. They found black cohosh, goldenseal, and cat’s claw particularly effective. The Hindu culture in India combined the power of herbs with that of Ayurveda, a method of medical healing whose purpose is to bring the mind and body into harmony with the universe.

The Chinese medical community soon dispelled the thought that herbs have supernatural powers and began using them to diagnose and treat health issues, leaving the magic to entertainers. One healing herb considered by the Chinese to be central to a longer life was ginseng. They often included this powerful herb in teas which became part of traditional ceremonies.

The confusion about the connection between herbs and enchantment grew during the medieval period in England and Europe because only the wealthiest, most educated people and religious leaders could read. Common people had to trust the information about herbs and healing passed to them orally. During this period, superstition played a role in how herbs were regarded. Pepper and cinnamon, for example, were thought to grow close to paradise and were highly valued.

During the Renaissance, exploration of the new world increased the number of herbs available. This led to more research into their benefits and a written cataloguing of herbal discoveries. A fascination with healing herbs and their medicinal effects led to the publication of The English Physitian, written by Nicholas Culpepper, which encouraged ordinary citizens to use herbs to solve their health problems instead of visiting a professional. Some of the herbal remedies most popular during this time are listed below:

• White Willow Bark for Fever
• Echinacea for Infection
• Hyacinth for Bloating
• Poppy for Pain
• Marshmallow Root for Irritation or Inflammation
• Yarrow for Colds

By the early part of the nineteenth century, a book of herbal remedies was published in the United States. It provided information about the medical compounds known at the time, their properties and practical uses. This volume continued to expand as knowledge grew over time until the 1900’s when drug companies developed ways to extract the active ingredients from nature and use them in convenient pills and potent commercialized formulas, bring about the modern day pharmaceutical movement.

With the advent of modern medicine and the discovery of antibiotic treatment, the use of healing herbs declined steadily for many years, but in recent years, society has again turned to these natural miracles for remedies which have very few side effects and provide relief for so many maladies. Even pharmaceutical companies have based many of their synthetic drugs on herbal formulas which have been tested throughout time. Seventy-four percent of the drugs on the market today are derived from some form of herbal treatment, and the drug companies are constantly scouring the planet for new drugs to be found in the herbs which have yet to be discovered.

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