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Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is the most ancient form of health care known to humankind.   Herbs have been used in all cultures throughout history.  Extensive scientific documentation now exists concerning their use for health conditions, including premenstrual syndrome, indigestion, insomnia, heart disease, cancer, and HIV.

Herbs have always been integral to the practice of medicine.   The word drug comes from the old Dutch word drogge meaning “to dry”, as pharmacists, physicians, and ancient healers often dried plants for use as medicines.  Today approximately 25 percent of all prescription drugs are still derived from trees, shrubs, or herbs.  Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.

The World Health Organization notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74 percent are used in modern medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures.

Yet, for the most part, modern medicine has veered from the use of pure herbs in its treatment of disease and other health disorders.   One of the reasons for this is economic.  Herbs, by their very nature, cannot be patented.  Since herbs cannot be patented and drug companies cannot hold the exclusive right to sell a particular herb, they are not motivated to invest any money in that herb’s testing or promotion.  The collection and preparation of herbal medicine cannot be easily controlled as a manufacture of synthetic drugs, making its profits less dependable.  In addition, many of these medicinal plants grow only in the Amazonian rain forest or other politically and economically unstable places, which also affects the supply of the herb.  Most importantly, the demand for herbal medicine has decreased in the United States because Americans have been conditioned to rely on synthetic, commercial drugs to provide quick relief, regardless of side effects.

Yet the current viewpoint seems to be changing.   “The revival of interest in herbal medicine is a worldwide phenomenon,” says Mark Elemental, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council.  This renaissance is due to the growing concern of the general public about the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, the impersonal and often demeaning experience of modern health care practices, as well as a renewed recognition of the unique medicinal value of herbal medicine.

“The scope of herbal medicine ranges from mild-acting plant medicines such as chamomile and peppermint, to very potent ones such as foxglove (from which the pharmaceutical drug digitalis is derived).  In between these two poles lies a wide spectrum of plant medicine with significant medical applications, “ says Donald Brown, N.D., of  Bastyr College, in Seattle, Washington and an educator in herbal medicine.  “One need only go to the United States Pharmacopoeia to see the central role that plant medicine has played in   American medicine.

What Is An Herb?

The word herb as used in herbal medicine (also known as botanical medicine or, in Europe, as phytotherapy or phytomedicine), means a plant or plant part that is used to make medicine, food flavors (spices), or aromatic oils for soaps and fragrances.   An herb can be a leaf, a flower, a stem, a seed, a root, a fruit, bark, or any other plant part used for its medicinal, food flavoring, or fragrant property.

Herbs have provided humankind with medicine from the earliest beginnings of civilization.  Throughout history, various cultures have handed down their accumulated knowledge of the medicinal use of herbs to successive generations.   This vast body of information serves as the basis for much of traditional medicine today.

There are an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 plants on the earth today (the number varies depending on whether subspecies are included).  Only about 5,000 of these have been extensively studied for their medicinal applications.  “This illustrates the need for modern medicine and science to turn its attention to the plant world once again to find new medicine that might cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and many other diseases and conditions,” says Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  “Considering that 121 prescription drugs come from only ninety species of plants, and that 74 percent of these were discovered following up native folklore claims,” says Dr. Farnsworth, “a logical person would have to say that there may still be more jackpots out there.”

How Herbal Medicine Works

Generally speaking, herbal medicines work in much the same way as do conventional pharmaceutical drugs, i.e., via their chemical makeup.  Herbs contain a large number of naturally occurring chemicals that have biological activity.  In the past 150 years, chemists and pharmacists have been isolating and purifying the “active” compounds from plants in an attempt to produce reliable pharmaceutical drugs.  Examples include such drugs like digoxin (from foxglove [Digitalis purpurea], reserpine (from Indian snakeroot [Rauwolfia serpentina]), colchicines (from autumn crocus [Colchicum autumnale]), morphine (from the opium poppy [Papaver somniafera]), and many more.

Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., of Tucson, Arizona, enjoying phenomenal success with thousands of patients, became one of the most respected doctors of an entire generation, thanks in no small way to his world-class expertise in herbal medicines.

According to Dr. Weil, as a result of herbs and plants using a more indirect route to the bloodstream and target organs, their effects are usually slower in onset and less dramatic than those of purified drugs administered by more direct routes.  “Doctors and patients accustomed to the rapid, intense effects of synthetic medicines may become impatient with botanicals for this reason,” Dr. Weil states.

Herbal medicine has most to offer when used to facilitate healing in chronic ongoing problems.  By skillful selection of herbs for the patient, a profound transformation in health can be effected with less danger of the side effects inherent in drug-based medicine.  However, the common assumption that herbs act slowly and mildly is not necessarily true.   Adverse effects can occur if an inadequate dose, a low-quality herb, or the wrong herb is prescribed for the patient. 

The Action of Herbs

A great deal of pharmaceutical research has gone into analyzing the active ingredients of herbs to find out how and why they work.  This effect is referred to as the herb’s action.   Herbal actions describe the ways in which the remedy affects human physiology.   In some cases the action is due to a specific chemical present in the herb (as in the antiasthmatic effects of ma-huang) or it may be due to a complex synergistic interaction between various constituents of the plant (the sedative valerian is an example).   A much older, and far more relevant approach is to categorize herbs by looking at what kinds of problems can be treated with their help.   Plants have a direct impact on physiological activity and by knowing what body process one wants to help or heal, the appropriate action can be selected.  The qualities of herbs which make them beneficial in treating the human body, include:

  • Adaptogenic: 

  • Adaptogenic herbs increase resistance and resilience to stress, enabling the body to adapt around the problem and avoid reaching collapse. 

  • Adaptogens work by supporting the adrenal glands.
  • Alterative: 

  • Herbs that gradually restore proper functioning of the body, increasing health and vitality.
  • Anthelminitic: 

  • Herbs that destroy or expel intestinal worms.
  • Anti-inflammatory: 

  • Herbs that soothe inflammations or reduce the inflammatory response of the tissue directly.  

  • They work in a number of different ways, but rarely inhibit the natural inflammatory reaction as such.
  • Antimicrobial: 

  • Antimicrobials help the body destroy or resist pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms.  

  • Herbs help the body strengthen its own resistance to infective organisms and throw off illness.  

  • While some contain chemicals that are antiseptic or poisonous to certain organisms, in general they aid the body’s natural immunity.
  • Antispasmodic: 

  • Antispasmodics ease cramps in smooth and skeletal muscles. 

  • They alleviate muscular tension and can ease psychological tension as well.
  • Astringent: 

  • Astringents have a binding action on mucous membranes, skin, and other tissue. 

  • They have the effect of reducing irritation and inflammation, and creating a barrier against infection that is helpful to wounds and burns.
  • Bitter: 

  • Herbs with a bitter taste have a special role in preventative medicine. 

  • The taste triggers a sensory response in the central nervous system leading to a range of responses, including:  

  • stimulating appetite and the flow of digestive juices; aiding the liver’s detoxification work; increasing bile flow, and motivating gut self-repair mechanisms.
  • Carminative: 

  • Plants that are rich in aromatic volatile oils stimulate the digestive system to work properly and with ease.  

  • They soothe gut wall; reduce any inflammation that might be present; and ease griping pains and help with the removal of gas from the digestive tract.
  • Demulcent: 

  • Demulcent herbs are rich in mucilage and soothe and protect irritated or inflamed tissue.  

  • They reduce irritation down the whole length of the bowel, reduce sensitivity to potentially corrosive gastric acids, help prevent diarrhea, and reduce the muscle spasms that cause colic.
  • Diuretic: 

  • Diuretics increase the production and elimination of urine. 

  • They help the body eliminate waste and support the whole process of inner cleansing.
  • Emmenagogue: 

  • Emmenagogues stimulate menstrual flow and activity. 

  • With most herbs, however, the term is used in the wider sense for a remedy that affects the female reproductive system.
  • Expectorants: 

  • Herbs that stimulate removal of mucous from the lungs.  

  • Stimulating expectorants “irritate” the bronchioles (a subdivision of the bronchial tubes) causing expulsion of material.  

  • Relaxing expectorants soothe bronchial spasm and loosen mucous secretions, helping in dry, irritating coughs.
  • Hepatics: 

  • Hepatics air the liver. 

  • They tone and strengthen the liver and in some cases increase the flow of bile.  

  • In a broad holistic approach to health they are of great importance because of the fundamental role of the liver in maintaining health by not only facilitating digestion but by removing toxins from the body.
  • Hypotensive: 

  • Hypotensives are plant remedies that lower abnormally elevated blood pressure.
  • Laxative: 

  • These are plants that promote bowel movement. 

  • They are divided into those that work by providing bulk, those that stimulate the production of bile in the liver and its release from the gallbladder, and those that directly trigger peristalsis (wavelike contractions of the smooth muscles of the digestive tract).
  • Nervine: 

  • Nervines help the nervous system and can be subdivided into three groups. 

  • Nervine tonics strengthen and restore the nervous system.  

  • Nervine relaxants ease anxiety and tension by soothing both body and mind. 

  • Nervine stimulants directly stimulate nerve activity.
  • Stimulating: 

  • Stimulants quicken and invigorate  

  • the physiological and metabolic activity of the body.
  • Tonic: 

  • Tonics nurture and enliven. 

  • They are used frequently in Traditional Chinese Medicine and ayurvedic medicine, often as a preventative measure. 

  • Tonic herbs like ginseng build vital energy, or qi.
The use of medicinal plants is also fundamental to Western society's pharmacologically based approach to medicine.  The majority of medicinal drug groups were discovered or developed from the plant kingdom, even if they are now manufactured synthetically.  However, most modern health professionals view medicines as biochemical "magic bullets," which should be expected to provide instant results.  This approach has been very successful in certain areas, such as the treatment of acute illness, but has major limitations when comes to chronic or degenerative disease.

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