Herbs have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Archaeologists have even discovered the remains of herbal remedies in Neanderthal burial sites dating back 60,000 years. Herbs can contain essential oils that are useful in medicine and modern medicines often contain isolated ingredients originally found in plants. Aspirin contains a synthetic version of a chemical found in willow bark. Similarly digitalis, a chemical component found in foxgloves, is used in the treatment of heart disease.
Traditionally Native Americans used Echinacea to fight infections. In other countries fresh mint was chewed in order to freshen breath whilst aloe vera was used to soothe sunburnt and irritated skin (this is still a popular remedy today).
The first known written record of using herbs to cure ailments was from a Sumerian herbalist in 2200 BC. The Greek doctor Hippocrates noted 400 herbs in general use in the 5th century BC, and Dioscorides, in the 1st century AD, wrote about the medicinal properties of 600 plants. One of the most popular herbalists ever was Nicholas Culpeper in the 17th century. He published a book to help people make their own herbal remedies at home.
How to Use Herbs as Medicine
Herbs can be used to make a tincture, infusion or decoction. A tincture is made by soaking the herb in alcohol for a few weeks and then straining it. The alcohol absorbs the soluble parts of the plant. The concentrated solution can be used sparingly, dropped on to the tongue or dabbed onto the wrists or temples. A tincture of lavender for example, is said to help aid sleep and cure headaches if dabbed onto the temples.
A decoction is made by boiling the roots, stems or bark of the herb in water for up to thirty minutes. A decoction of Echinacea root can boost the immune system and ward of colds if taken every day (although today it is readily available in concentrated tablet form).
An infusion is made by pouring hot water over the leaves or flowers of the herb and letting the mixture steep for fifteen minutes. This is also known as a herb tea. Herb teas are delicious and nutritious. Many herbs can be used to make tea, including:
- Camomile tea (made from the flowers) is popular and aids sleep.
- Peppermint tea aids digestion when drunk after a meal.
- Lemon balm tea relieves fatigue, headaches and can help improve the memory.
Medicinal Herbs to Relieve Common Symptoms
The following ailments were traditionally treated by common herbs we know today:
- Stomach ailments – teas of thyme, mint, or camomile
- Respiratory problems – thyme tea
- Sore throats and gums – a sage decoction to gargle
- Cuts and wounds – poultices of sorrel leaves, comfrey roots, St. Johns Wort
- Kidney stones: lovage tea
Today, common herbal solutions are available in tablet form that we can take as a daily supplement. Echinacea, St John’s Wort and milk thistle are just some of the herbs that have been used for thousands of years. They are considered to be alternative remedies to conventional medicine, but increasingly they are scientifically proven to work and often have few or no side effects.