The use of herbs as medicine is as old as recorded time. From the pages of the Bible, in medieval texts and in documents down through the ages to more recent times, the preventative, curative, restorative benefits of herbs and other plants with medicinal properties have been noted and touted.
Today, herbs and plants are being given serious thought and consideration again as sources of genuinely effective medicines, not by long-time practitioners and new-age, natural-healing advocates alone, but at the most respected levels of contemporary professional medical thinking.
That was the message behind a two-day symposium, "Herbal Medicine: Perception, Practice and Rational Use," sponsored by Morris Arboretum and the University of Pennsylvania's Schools of Medicine and Nursing, and held at the arboretum in Chestnut Hill.
Research in complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, is strong at Penn. Over the last several years, the university's Schools of Medicine and Nursing have explored it through rigorous science, and have developed a CAM-based training and academic program while getting the word out to faculty and the community about various health-care modalities.
"Herbs and other plants used as medicines have always been around, but haven't crossed the line into conventional therapy before," said Wendy Grube, MSN, CRNP, as well as a registered herbal-ist, American Herbalists Guild, and associate program director of the Women's Health-Care Nurse-Practitioner Program at the Penn School of Nursing.
Filling in the Gaps
"It was thought that it was just a matter of time until people would jettison herbal preparations in favor of biomedicine and use more scientifically based healing, but that hasn't happened," she explained. "People in rural areas especially — for example, West Virginia, where herb- al medicine is widely practiced and where, as in many rural areas, doctors may be few and far between — still rely on complementary and alternative sources, as do people in many other places."
What is needed, she continued, is to look at what's missing in conventional medicine, and fill the gaps with herbs and plants, which are less expensive generally but also less potent.
"While there is some resistance from the medical community, there is growing acceptance also," said Grube. "The National Institutes of Health, for example, is studying the benefits of herbs, while more and more consumers and patients are saying they want alternative and complementary medicines to be available."
For those who choose to self-medicate, she sounded a note of caution: "It can be done successfully, but be careful and learn about possible side effects," which can be examined at: www.americanherbalistsguild.com.
The symposium's first day included a guided tour of the arboretum's inviting and impressive herb and flower gardens, in addition to a keynote address by John M. Riddle, Ph.D., alumni distinguished professor of history and botany in the department of history at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Riddle, an internationally known educator and author who's taught at N.C. State for 40 years, spoke about the history of herbs and plants. "Central to the mission of understanding herbal medicines is educating peo- ple about them since we are so dependent on plants, since so many of our medications come directly or indirectly from them. We need to take an interdisciplinary perspective, to look more at a holistic approach to the use of herbs in medicine today," he stated.
He noted that mandrakes, for example, a Mediterranean herb of the nightshade family, are mentioned in Genesis 30:14; that pomegranates were used as a contraceptive in ancient times; that garlic has been used for centuries to clean arteries; and St. John's Wort has been used to treat depression since the early ninth century.
"Of the 257 drugs in the Hippocratus Corpus (60 works attributed to Hippocrates), 80 percent were plant-based, which is about the same number today that are, and 89.5 percent of the 257 are still in use today," he mentioned.
Riddle's presentation was preceded by brief introductory remarks by Arthur H. Rubenstein, bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery, as well as dean of the Penn School of Medicine and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Said Rubenstein: "We should spend time examining complementary and alternative medicine, to bring these things to light, to look at their history and the opportunities they offer for patients."
Day two of the symposium was filled with presentations by noted medical and herbal experts. Sessions included "Herbal Medicine Today: The State of the Field," by Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas; and "How to Inform the Public About the Use of Herbal Medicines," by Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Informatics Institute for Complementary and Integrative Medicine in Bethesda, Md.
Among those who attended the symposium was Jane Morse, VMD, L.Ac., Ballston Animal Hospital in Arlington, Va., a veterinarian who described herself as "a budding herbalist."
Why is she interested?
"There are so many herbs and so many purposes: as foods, to augment nutrition and to enhance the body's normal physiologic processes, to name a few. Each person, plant and each disorder is unique. How herbs could be used depends on the person, his or her condition, and other considerations," Morse said, adding that "although nutrition is very basic, we all know that we can significantly affect our health by what we eat.
"As Hippocrates said, 'Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.' "