There is an herb for every ailment
Ancient Celtic Physicians
Our Fathers of Old.
A poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Excellent herbs had our fathers of old
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run),
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you, Cowslip,
Melitot, Rose of the Sun,
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.
Wonderful tales had our fathers of old –
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke)
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.
Send us the hearts of our fathers of old!
Herbs and Health
There is nothing new about the use of herbs to promote recovery, health and wellbeing. Every culture throughout the world has at some point used healing plants as the basis for its medicine and had a basic healing flora from which remedies were selected. The range of plants would vary from area to area depending on the local ecosystem, but the human problems they dealt with were the same.
The therapeutic philosophy for plant use also varies, but got thousands of years plants have demonstrated their efficiency as healing agents. From the Celtic druid priests to the traditional healers of Africa; we find them within the Indian ayurvedic system, and in Chinese medicine alongside acupuncture and other techniques; they play a very important role in the spiritual healing ecology of the Native North Americans; and we see their constituents being utilised as a source of drugs in ‘orthodox’ medicine.
In fact, medicine has its roots in the use of herbs. Until about 50 years ago, nearly all the entries in pharmacopoeias describing the manufacture of drugs indicated a herbal origin. Only since the refinement of chemical technology has the use of herbs apparently diminished – though the majority of drugs still have their origin in plant material.
Today the popularity of herbalism is growing. More and more people are discovering that this is an effective and comparatively inexpensive form of health care. They appreciate the fact that it draws exclusively on natural products. They have learnt that it is as useful in preventing illness as it is in curing it. However, there are other factors that attract people to herbal medicine and this introductory section will look at these in more detail.
Herbs in the Holistic Context
As its name implies, ‘holistic; medicine deals with the person as a whole and integrated system, not a collection of isolated parts. That is why Herbal does not merely ‘list herbs’ – it looks at the action of herbs in the context of the various systems in the body and acknowledges that people have feelings, minds and spirits as well as bodies.
The word ‘healing’ has its roots in the Greek “holos” the same word that has given us ‘whole’ and ‘holistic’. The emotions, thought-life and spiritual flow are as important to health as is the state of organs and tissues within the body. Whether we’re concerned about being healthy, regaining health or moving to greater health, the whole of the being, physical, mental and spiritual, is involved in the process.
Herbal medicine recognises that herbs can work on this whole being, not just on specific systems. It works ‘synergistically’. This means that the whole effect of a herbal remedy is vastly greater than the sum of its individual constituents. If we just looked at herbs as a source of valuable individual chemicals, we would limit their healing power, for beyond the physical level they can also work on the level of the ‘life-force’ that empowers us.
Human beings do not exist in isolation any more than parts of the body do. Medicine can only be truly holistic if it acknowledges the social and cultural context in which the ‘illness’ and the desired healing take place. It therefore needs to look at the patterns of thought, behaviour, work and culture that were the sources of the ’disease’ in the first place.
This perspective sees health as a positive state, not as an absence of disease. The emphasis is on assisting people to understand and help themselves, on education and self-care, on prevention of disease and promotion of a healthy lifestyle.
We have often heard it said that ‘we are what we eat’. But we are also what we breathe, what we think, what we say, what we see. In later sections, when we look at the different body systems, we will discuss the importance of exercise, good food and fresh air. We are familiar with associating these things with our health, but what about the books we read, the films and television we watch, the politics we support? Is the music we listen to good for our health? Are our friends good for us? These are relevant questions, none of which can have assumed answers – they will be different for everyone. But the responses we make to them do have a bearing on our wellbeing.
In all holistic medicine individuality and responsibility are crucial factors. There is an emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of tailoring treatment to meet each person’s very different needs and circumstances. Holistic medicine also majors on therapeutic approaches that are aimed at mobilising a person’s own capacity for self-healing. The person who is ‘ill’ is in fact the healer. Aid can be sought from ‘experts’, but the responsibility for healing and health lies with the person who wants to be well. Using herbs is an ideal way to co-operate with our own innate healing power.
Herbs and the Environment
The ‘whole’ individual – mind, body, spirit and emotions – in the wider social setting of lifestyles and behaviour is part of a greater whole, however. Humanity itself exists in the context of the entire planet. All these levels work together in a dynamic, integrated system.
It seems clear that many health issues – stress, asthma, allergies, heart disease – are connected with cultural and ecological problems and often reflect our alienation from nature and ‘natural’ lifestyles. Herbalism can play a major role in bridging this separation. With its reverence for life and the relationship it establishes between plants and people, herbalism is close to the heart of the greener vision that is slowly but surely changing our cultural worldview.
Wholeness and Prevention
Herbal remedies can be used for the safe alleviation of illness, this however is not the only way to use these plants. Herbs can be used to support people’s health and wholeness, helping them to stay at their personal peak of vitality and prevent disease development. There is food that supplies nutritional needs (calories, proteins and vitamins) and also delicious tastes and smells, and there are herbal foods’ that nurture our wholeness, integration and wellbeing. These tonic remedies play a fundamental role in the maintenance of health and prevention of disease.