At its heart, Western herbal medicine retains some of the philosophies espoused by the Greek physician Hippocrates and his contemporaries more than 2,000 years ago. These teachings included the principle that a patient's diet, environment and mental state all contributed to his or her well-being.
Today's Western herbalists take a similar holistic approach to healthcare, prescribing dietary and other lifestyle changes as well as herbal remedies, based on the principle that the factors that contribute to ill health need to be removed in order for healing to occur.
This is an extension of their view that the body often repairs itself when provided with the optimal conditions in which to do so - another concept associated with the Hippocratic tradition, which taught the vis medicatrix naturae, or innate, self-healing capacity of the human body.
In many ways, this goal of returning the body to a state of balance is central to every decision the herbalist makes in treatment. Whereas the medical approach largely focuses on fighting disease and pathology, the Western herbalist mainly works toward optimizing the function of the organs and body systems so that the body can heal itself.
Of course, in all acute and serious conditions, medical intervention is entirely appropriate. The specific, targeted, disease-
treat o^teru, comfort alwayA/. "
Hippocrates, c. 460-c. 370 BM
fighting approach is exactly what's required when dealing with dangerously high blood pressure, a life-threatening infection, a burst appendix or an anaphylactic allergic reaction - all of which require drastic and fast-acting treatment.
Gentle treatment for chronic health problems On the other hand, herbs are often appropriate for chronic disease states, which develop over a longer period, and whose symptoms may be less well defined. These conditions are commonly linked with unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits, and they often respond well to slower-acting, gentler herbal remedies -especially if healthier habits are adopted at the same time. By addressing these chronic states of ill-health, herbs may help prevent some conditions developing into more serious diseases that require acute intervention; in fact, disease prevention is often an important goal of treatment.
Digestive system In order to restore the body to a state of balance, the Western herbalist considers the functioning of each of the body's major organs and body systems. Of central importance are the digestive system and the organs of elimination: optimizing their ability to assimilate nutrients and process the bodily wastes is a major focus of many treatment protocols.
The herbalist may also prescribe remedies that:
• help the patient cope better with stress by either building up or calming down the nervous system;
It is said that when the Pilgrims arrived in North America, fewer than 90 diseases were known among Native American people, whose extraordinary fitness and vitality was noticed by European doctors in early Colonial days.
Native American healers were highly respected and played a valuable role in the physical and spiritual well-being of their society. They also had a rich herbal iradition on which to draw when treating illness or injury, and for midwifery and contraceptive purposes.
Today many of the remedies found in the Western herbalist's dispensary - including the very popular herbs echinacea, golden seal (below) and black cohosh -were first introduced to settlers by the Native. Americans.
• normalize hormonal balance, relieving the symptoms of menopause or premenstrual syndrome and, where it is appropriate, priming the body for conception;
• relieve pain and inflammation; and
« support heart and blood vessel function.
Before determining an appropriate treatment, the herbalist considers each patient's individual circumstances and constitution. For example, in formulating a prescription for supporting weight loss, the herbalist may take into account factors such as the patient's bowel habits, energy levels, hormonal status and ability to cope with stress. This individualised approach to treatment - "treating the person, not the disease" - is the opposite of the "one size fits all" approach that can be characteristic of the medical or pharmaceutical model.
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