Herbal Medicine: Treatments To Be Handled With Caution – Vigorous Herbs
Many are tempted to treat small everyday ailments with plants, which are perceived as more natural. Whether they come in the form of herbal teas, essential oils, or capsules, powder.
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Phytotherapy is a word of Greek origin that designates the art of healing by plants. The medicinal use of plants is lost at the beginning of time: the first men chewed them to treat their ailments, just as wild apes still do today. In India, Mesopotamia, Egypt… the first known texts of herbal medicine were distributed between 3000 and 1500 years before our era.
A Sumerian tablet, discovered in Mesopotamia and dating from the 3rd millennium BC, offers 15 prescriptions: myrrh, thyme, and willow are mixed with beer or wine … Mandrake, opium extracted from the poppy and the willow figure prominently in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian treatise on medicine, which dates from 1600 BC. A medicine that has been perpetuated and enriched over time with the contributions of the Greeks and Romans, from Hippocrates to Galen, including Pliny the Elder. Dioscorides in the 1st century of our era lists 600 plants for medicinal use: a work that will be a reference for 1,500 years. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the ecclesiastics who took over and cultivated the “simple” in the monasteries. The discovery of America will allow the discovery of new plants, like the quinquina.
“Even today, herbal medicine remains the main remedy in many developing countries,” explains Professor, responsible for teaching herbal medicine at the Faculty of Pharmacy. In India, many drugs are derived from plants, and herbal medicine has long been neglected, considered a “good woman” remedy. In recent years, it has come back to the forefront.
In addition to conventional treatments
Bronchial ailments, sleep disorders, urinary stones, excess cholesterol, herpes … Herbal medicine can help overcome many diseases but certainly not all pathologies. “ You don’t cure cancer with herbal medicine. On the other hand, it is possible to support the management of side effects linked to treatments, explains Dr. Paul Goetz, a psychotherapist based in Strasbourg. But watch out for the messages delivered. Take the example of cranberries: it will prevent the recurrence of urinary tract infections but, in any case, it will not cure major urinary tract infections with a lot of fever, ”continues the therapist.
“The advantage of certain plants, to choose well because they are not always without risk, is to limit the intake of synthetic drugs and to allow a decrease in drug”
Today, it is no longer a question of opposing herbal treatments and drugs derived from chemistry, but of using them as a compliment, as explained by Dr. Laurent Chevallier. “In France, we have 13 million people with multiple drugs with the risk of accidents linked to interactions -10 to 20% of hospitalizations after 65 years are linked to drug misuse. The interest of certain plants, to choose well because they are not always without risk, is to limit the intake of synthetic drugs and to allow a drug decrease ”, according to the nutritionist, botanist, and author of Fewer drugs, more plants (Ed. Fayard).
Precautions that must be taken
Considered safe because natural, herbal medicine cannot be improvised. Plants are not placebos or philippine powder: they can interact with other treatments as well. St. John’s Wort, for example, known for its antidepressant properties, decreases the activity of many drugs … And if mild disorders can be taken care of by self-medication, there are limits. Because treating yourself with plants does not mean that you are able to make the correct diagnosis. “I recovered, some time ago, one of my patients with renal failure who had self-treated with asparagus, diuretics but contraindicated in his pathology”, testifies Dr. Paul Goetz
In Europe, there are more than 1000 plants used for medicinal use, but the French pharmacopeia lists around 400, of which 200 have framed therapeutic indications and 148 escape the monopoly of the pharmacist. All plants poisonous or known to be toxic have been eliminated. “About sixty Chinese plants and forty-five from overseas departments are now listed in the pharmacopeia”, underlines Dr. Jacques Fleurentin, pharmacist, president of the Society of ethnopharmacology.
This list can help apprentice herbalists separate the wheat from the chaff in a bloated supply. “With the concept of beneficent nature, we see the emergence of exotic plants from foreign traditions which, used without hindsight, in non-traditional conditions, can reserve unpleasant surprises”, warns Pierre Champy, who quotes desmodium, a plant African fashionable to protect the liver that caused hepatitis.
“We are seeing the emergence of exotic plants from foreign traditions which, used without hindsight, in non-traditional conditions, can hold unpleasant surprises”
What parts of plants to use?
Almost any part of the plant can be used. “Generally, in France, it is the renewable parts: stems, leaves, flowers… which are used, more rarely the roots and bark”, specifies Pierre Champy. “In herbal tea, the roots and bark are often too bitter and compliance with the treatment difficult, hence the interest, in a certain number of situations, of plant capsules”, adds Dr. Laurent Chevallier.
But knowing the name of a plant is not always enough: its different parts can have different therapeutic properties. This is the case of elderberry whose flower is diuretic and the fruit has activity against colds. In nettles, the aerial part calms rheumatic pain and the root relieves urination problems associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia. Another example, the linden flower is known for its anxiolytic properties while the sapwood of linden will rather have a purifying action. “You also need to know the galenic form and the dosage,” explains Dr. Jean-Michel Morel, a phytotherapist in Besançon.
In what forms should they be used?
“The herbal tea form, the most traditional, remains very effective. But it is not always easy to use in modern life ”
Dr. Jean-Michel Morel, phytotherapist
“The herbal tea form, the most traditional, remains very effective. But it is not always easy to use in modern life ”, recognizes Dr. Jean-Michel Morel. However, physicians and pharmacists who are adept at herbal medicine remain attached to this form, which very often makes it possible to collect the total of the plant, that is to say, all the active substances of the plant. Because this is their subtlety: the person responsible for their action is not an active principle, but their total.
“These are complex mixtures that work in synergy. If you take St. John’s Wort, for example, the active ingredient has more activity when mixed with the other components of the plant, ”explains Jean-Michel Morel. In herbal tea, the dosage of this same St. John’s Wort remains uncertain and does not allow reproducible efficacy. Most often, the forms traditionally used prove to be the most effective and the least dangerous. “Ethnopharmacology, which seeks to validate the traditional therapeutic indication on animals or cell cultures, without however isolating an active principle, has been able to observe in three-quarters of cases the effectiveness when it is administered under its usual form, ”insists Jacques Fleurentin, author of the Good Use of Plants that Treat, West France 2013 editions.
Different indications depending on the shape
Conversely, some plants can be toxic if they deviate from well-established use. Germander, traditionally used in herbal tea, has been found, in powder form, to be harmful to the liver. Herbal capsules or tablets appear to be more suitable for modern life because they are easy to administer. The dry forms are made from plant powder or dry extracts, with a number of active ingredients three to four times more concentrated than the powder. There are also fluid extracts and tinctures: the solvent is then a water-alcohol mixture which allows more active ingredients to be extracted from the plant. However, the presence of alcohol can limit their use. “But the fluid extract is without a doubt the closest form to the fresh plant,” says Dr. Paul Goetz.
“The same plant will not be used for the same indications in herbal tea or essential oil”
Dr. Paul Goetz, phytotherapist
The essential oils extracted from aromatic plants are used in a particular branch of phytotherapy: aromatherapy (see page 90). And once again, caution! “The same plant will not be used for the same indications in herbal tea or essential oil,”