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Introduction to Herbology
by Ronald Steriti, ND, PhD


The origins of herbal medicine date back to the earliest written documents known to man. Dozens of medicinal plants, including myrrh, castor oil and garlic are mentioned in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus and the the Indian Vedas, both dated at about 1500 BC. Eastern medicine developed into the Chinese and Ayurvedic medical systems.

Chinese Medicine

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine was written in 100 BC in China. It also advocates a system of medicine based upon five elements - earth, water, fire, wood and metal.

Ayurvedic Medicine

In 700 BC the Indian physician Charaka writes Charaka Samhita which details over 350 herbal medicines including Ammi visnaga used for asthma, and gotu kola which has long been used to treat leprosy. In his writings the basic tenets of Ayurvedic medicine are outlined.

According to Ayurveda there are three primary life-forces in the body corresponding to three biological humours. Vata corresponds to the element air or wind, Pitta to the element fire, and Kapha to the element water. Disease are thought to be caused by an imbalance in the humours.

Vata (air) is considered the governing humour and is responsible for all physical processes (e.g. movement) in general. Vata is dry, cold and light. Pitta (fire) exists in the body in the form of oil or water. It is oily, sharp, hot, light, unpleasant in odor, mobile and liquid. Kapha (water) is often translated as phlegm. It is what binds things together. It is cold, wet, heavy, dull, sticky, soft and firm.

Tibetan Medicine

In Tibetian Buddhism three emotions are considered to be the root of all illness. They are referred to as the "Three Interior Poisons" which form the three humors or nyes-pa, which literally means the three "defects" or "faults" or "forms of punishment". When they are in harmony they maintain well-being, but when they are disturbed or out of harmony, they are the cause of illness.

The first poison is desire or passion, which implies grasping at objects or the mental attachment to pleasant experiences. Desire corresponds to disharmony of wind. Aversion, or hatred, is regarded as the second poison. It consists of the pushing away of unpleasant experiences or objects. Aversion corresponds to disharmony of energy, or bile. Ignorance or confusion, involves misunderstanding the nature of an object or experience. Ignorance is considered the third poison of the mind and is related to heavy, or phlegm, disorders.

Besides the imbalances of three types of humors, wind, bile and phlegm there are also disorders whose origins lie in the karma of the past life. They are illnesses of a serious nature, which are typically considered the consequences of "mistakes committed in a previous life". Such illnesses are usually considered to be fatal, unless they are treated with meditation and other spiritual practices, such as confession or exorcism.

Superficial disorders are caused and cured by changes in behavioral patterns such as smoking, diet, bathing, and lack of exercise, or activities such as stealing, adultery, lying and dishonesty.

Hippocrates and Aristotle

In 460-377 BC Hippocrates writes several textbooks on medicine. He considers illness to be a natural rather than supernatural phenomenon. He also writes a code of medical ethics which is still used today (the Hippocratic Oath). Hippocrates expands on the idea that the world was made up of the elements earth, water, fire and air and classifies herbs as having hot, dry, cold and moist properties. This same classification is used in the Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine systems with some minor variations. Aristotle (384-322 BC) developed the theory of the four humours (blood, bile, phlegm and choler) as the cause of disease.

According to Hippocratic medicine, the four main fluids of the body are blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm. Each of these fluids also corresponded to a temperment (or personality). The sanguine temperment is optimistic and joyful, yet prone to pride, passion, and cruelty. The choler temperment is practical and rational. They are prone to anger, irritability, and impatience. The phlegmatic temperment is very sensitive, peaceful, soft and considerate. They make very strong emotional connections with their loved ones, and suffer deeply from a sense of abandonment if these relationships do not work out. They are easily hurt and tend to be sad and tearful. They are worse when exposed to too much excitement, over stimulated, and when forced to do things in a hurry. Melancholic temperments are intelligent and sophisticated and are prone to restlessness and depression.

Galenic Medicine

Galen organized his materia medica by the actions of herbs. This system arranged the herbs both by system and physiological action. For instance, on the skin antiseptics such as tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) were used to disinfect the skin. Emolients, such as calendula (Calendula officinalis), reduced itching, redness and soreness. Astringents, such as witch hazel (Hamamelis virginica), tightened the skin to stop bleeding.

Paraselsian Medicine

Paracelsus is kown as the “father of medical chemistry”. He believes that the active consituents in the herbs are responsible for their healing actions. These active constituents are identified, isolated and synthetically manufactured to form what we call drugs. He also revived interest in the Docterine of Signatures, and the art of alchemy.

Mucilage is made of polysaccharides that soak up water to form a jelly-like mass. Mucilage lines the digestive tract and protects it against inflammation and irritation. Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) and Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) contain mucilage. Tannins are astringent and contract the tissues of the body, which is why they are used to “tan” leather. Oak bark (Quercus robur) is high in tannins, as is black tea and red wine.

The Scientific Method

In the early 1900’s science and medicine was transformed by the adoption of the scientific medicine. The scientific method has four steps: Observation, Hypotheses, Model and Experiment. First one observes a phenomenon or group of phenomena. A hypothesis is then formulated to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation. The hypothesis is then used to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations. Finally experimental tests are made by several independent experimenters.

The American Medical Association adopted the Scientific Method in 1846. The AMA was formed to promote the Orthidox Medical Profession to the exclusion of all other forms of medicine, in particular homeopathy, which was the predominant form of medicine in the United States
at the time.




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