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Unveiling Herbalism History : When Were Herbs First Used In Medicine?

Updated: Dec 25, 2023

Herbal tea in herbalism

Plants have been an essential part of human life for thousands of years. They have not only provided a source of nutrition but also served as medicine. While modern medicine may rely heavily on pharmaceuticals, the use of plants for medicinal purposes is still widespread. Herbalism, the practice of using plants for their healing properties, has a long and intriguing history. Let's explore the origins of herbalism by taking a journey through time. By understanding how our ancestors used plants for medicine, we can appreciate herbs' benefits and continue to leverage their power today.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine in Herbalism History

Without Ancient Egypt, herbalism would not be what it is today. As pioneers in medicine, they had a significant impact on herbalism. Their innovative techniques and treatments were ahead of their time. Ancient Egyptians used herbs and plants for medicinal purposes as far back as 2800 BCE. Egyptians incorporated Herbal remedies into their complex system of medicine.

The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document dating back to 1500 BCE, contains references to over 700 medicinal plants, demonstrating the extensive knowledge that the Egyptians had about herbalism. They used numerous plants, such as aloe vera, chamomile, and frankincense, for various ailments, including digestive issues, skin conditions, and respiratory problems. Additionally, the Egyptians used herbal remedies for embalming, recognizing their preservative properties. Herbalists have benefited from ancient Egyptian knowledge and practices relating to the use of plants in medicine.

Ancient Greece Herbalism: The Healing Properties of Plants

The Greeks were also influential in the history of herbalism, with their knowledge and practices being passed down through the ages. In fact, many of the medical terms still used today originate from Ancient Greek. The Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates, known as the "Father of Medicine," believed in the healing power of nature and utilized plants as part of his treatments. He even wrote about the use of herbs in his famous Hippocratic Corpus.

Herbs used in herbalism

Other notable Greek physicians, such as Dioscorides and Galen, also contributed significantly to the study of herbal medicine. Dioscorides' work, De Materia Medica, contained information on over 500 plants and their medicinal properties. Furthermore, Galen's writings on botanical medicine were influential for centuries. The Greeks believed in the concept of balancing the body's humors, or fluids, through the use of herbs and other remedies.

This understanding of the body's natural balance still influences herbal medicine today. The knowledge and practices of the Greeks continue to be relevant in the modern field of herbalism. This Greek system, with its unique theories and practices, even influenced the development of herbalism in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Herbalism in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Herbalism in Traditional Chinese Medicine developed independently of the Greek system, with its own unique theories and practices. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views the human body as an interconnected system. It seeks to restore balance and harmony to the body using natural remedies such as acupuncture, massage, and herbs. In TCM, herbs are used in formulas, which are a combination of several herbs that work together to treat a specific condition. Each herb in the formula has a particular role, and the blend of herbs is carefully balanced to achieve the desired effect.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Herbalism

TCM has a long history of using herbs as medicine, with written records dating back over 2,000 years. In fact, the earliest known Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, contains a wealth of information on herbal remedies. Some of the herbs used in TCM are familiar to the Western world, such as ginseng and ginger, while others are less well-known, like Dang Gui and Huang qi. TCM also uses other natural substances, such as minerals and animal products, in its remedies.

Despite its differences from Western herbalism, TCM has significantly impacted the modern practice of herbal medicine. Many of the herbs used in TCM have been studied for their medicinal properties, and some have even been incorporated into Western medicine. Here are a few examples;

  • The herb Artemisia Annua, which is used in TCM to treat fevers, is the source of the anti-malaria drug artemisinin.

  • Papaver Somniferum, the poppy plant, produces opium, a narcotic whose derivatives include morphine, codeine, heroin, and oxycodone. Because of false positives, those in fields requiring drug tests cannot even touch poppy seeds.

And many more.

Plants have become the first source of substances for the development of new drugs, and a considerable part of the drugs prescribed in the world are derived from them. ~ National Library of Medicine

As herbalism continues to evolve and gain acceptance in mainstream medicine, it's essential to recognize the contributions of all cultures and traditions. The knowledge and practices of both the Greeks and the Chinese have helped shape the field of herbalism into what it is today.

The Evolution of Herbalism in Modern-Day Medicine

Medication derived from herbalism

Herbalism has come a long way since its origins in ancient cultures. Today, it's widely recognized as a complementary practice to conventional medicine, and its popularity continues to grow. Various cultures, including Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, have influenced the use of herbal remedies in modern-day medicine. Many herbs have been studied extensively for their potential medicinal benefits; some have even been incorporated into mainstream medicine. Research is still needed for many others.

One example is the herb St. John's Wort, which has been used for centuries to treat depression and anxiety. In the past few decades, it has gained widespread recognition as a natural antidepressant and is now commonly prescribed by doctors alongside pharmaceuticals. Similarly, the herb milk thistle has been shown to aid in liver function and is used in both traditional herbalism and conventional medicine.

As more research is conducted on the medicinal properties of herbs, we'll likely see further integration of herbalism into modern healthcare. Many cultures already have healthcare professionals embracing herbal remedies to provide patients with a holistic approach to healing.

Benefits of Herbalism for Health and Wellness

As herbalism gains more recognition as a valuable form of medicine, it's vital to consider the specific benefits it can offer for overall health and wellness. One significant advantage of herbalism is its ability to treat various ailments, from minor issues like headaches and stomachaches to more severe conditions like high blood pressure and chronic pain. Traditional herbalism, in particular, has a long history of treating conditions holistically, considering the whole person rather than just their symptoms.

Herbal concoctions in herbalism

Many herbs' anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidant properties have also been documented. Those can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Several studies have shown turmeric's anti-inflammatory effects can alleviate joint pain and stiffness, while garlic exhibits anti-cancer properties.

Another benefit of herbalism is its affordability. Compared to many pharmaceutical drugs, which cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars monthly, herbal remedies are often more affordable and accessible. In addition to being an excellent alternative to expensive prescription medications, they are also an option for those who do not have access to conventional healthcare.

As we mentioned, herbalism offers a variety of health and wellness benefits. We're likely to see more and more people turning to herbal remedies as a safe, effective, and affordable means of healthcare as herbalism continues to gain popularity.

Herbalism concoction

If you would like a consultation or aren't sure where to start your herbalism journey contact us or book a session with our clinical herbalist. We also offer courses for schools and homeschoolers on the topic, which can be included in our Nature journal course.

Throughout history, humans have relied on the healing properties of plants to address a range of health issues. From ancient civilizations to modern-day medicine, herbalism has played a significant role in healthcare. By exploring the origins of herbalism, we have gained a more in-depth understanding of the benefits of using plants for health and wellness. Incorporating herbs into our healthcare routines can provide natural and complementary approaches to modern medicine that offer a host of benefits for physical and emotional well-being.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. ~ Hippocrates

Let's take inspiration from our ancestors and continue exploring herbalism's vast potential in our daily lives.

Medicinal herbs in herbalism

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National Library of Medicine (PubMed), Plants as Sources of Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Clara dos Reis Nunes, Mariana Barreto Arantes, Silvia Menezes de Faria Pereira & alt., (Aug, 2020)

National Library of Medicine (PubMed), Traditional ancient Egyptian medicine: A review, Ahmed M Metwaly, Mohammed M Ghoneim, Ibrahim H Eissa & alt., (June, 2021)

National Library of Medicine (PubMed), Ancient Egyptian surgical heritage, Aly Saber, (Dec, 2010)

National Library of Medicine (PubMed), What has traditional Chinese medicine delivered for modern medicine?, Jigang Wang, Yin-Kwan Wong, Fulong Liao, (May, 2018)

National Library of Medicine (PubMed), Health care practices in ancient Greece: The Hippocratic ideal, Christos F. Kleisiaris, Chrisanthos Sfakianakis, and Ioanna V. Papathanasiou, (Mar, 2014)

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