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Historical perspectives on traditional herbal medicine (Part 2)

  • Roy Upton
    Roy Upton

    Roy Upton is the founder, president, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). He has been working and practicing professionally as a herbalist since 1981, and he trained in Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese, and Western herbal medicine and has also studied and worked extensively with Native American and Caribbean ethnobotanical traditions. As an integral part of his work as a herbalist, he spends a great deal of time defending the rights of consumers to access herbal medicines and to see herbal medicine integrated into the fabric of both our homes and health care systems.

  • 11:50 reading time (ish)
  • History Western Herbal Medicine

Written by Roy Upton

Esam bhutanam prthivi rasha, prthivya apo raso-pam osadhayo rasa, osadhinam puruso rasah;
[The essence of all beings is Earth. The essence of the Earth is Water. The essence of Water is Plants. The Essence of Plants is the Human Being….]
Chandogya Upanishad, sixth century CE Vedic text

Healing in nature

Thus, are the philosophical underpinnings of human existence recorded in the Chandogya Upanishad, a Vedic text dating to the Brahmana period sometime before the sixth century CE that clearly articulates the dynamic relationship that exists between humans, plants, and the environment overall. Similarly, the philosophy of Vis Medicatrix Naturae (the healing power of nature), as set down by Hippocrates summarizes the basic principles of healing; namely that the body as a living biological organism is always trying to achieve a state of health and balance and that an observed malady is the body’s attempt to reestablish equilibrium (Grube 1954; Hiroshi 1998). This connection between human health and nature is a philosophical underpinning of many traditional healing systems worldwide (Payyappallimana 2010), but is a perspective most often overshadowed or completely lost in attempts to push herbal medicine into a level of acceptance in modernity. Ancient healers recognized the human organism was made of the same substances that existed in nature and thus is an extension of nature. Therefore, so it was reasoned, that healing was facilitated through nature and substances of nature; namely fresh air, pure water, sunshine, good nutrition, exercise, and herbal medicines, and, including in shamanistic or religious healing practices, invocation of ancestors, saints, spirits, and deities.


The practice of herbal medicine, historically followed two paths. The first of these was rooted in relative simplicity; an herbalist gathering plant medicines and attending to the needs of the sick in a system that can be defined as community-based health care. These were, and in many countries today, are, the folk healers, grandmothers and grandfathers learned in the use of medicinal plants. The second path was that of professional practitioners. In ancient times, some of these were among the most learned of their generation and are well represented from the 1st to 15th centuries CE in works such as De Materia Medica of Dioscorides and the Hippocratic Corpus of Hippocrates, both of Greece, the Charka Samhita of India, and the Shennong Bencao of China, followed a few centuries later by the Canon of Medicine byIbn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Persia and several centuries later by the Renaissance herbal writers such as Fuchs, Gerard, Mattiolis, Parkinsons, and Salmon, and the later Chinese authority Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, to name only a few. The use of herbs within these formal medical traditions was integrated with very sophisticated theories of anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Conversely, folk healing traditions predominantly represented an empirical use of herbs passed down through families, community knowledge, and fragments of the more formalized medical practice. While the humoral system of Hippocrates, Galen, and to a great degree, Avicenna, was the ancestor of today’s medical theories, today’s conventional Western medical practitioners have no relationship to these past theories, with a belief of the scientific superiority of current theories.

In contrast, the medical theories of Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine remain intact, continue to evolve, and continue to be practiced according to their same historical foundational principles, and often with correlative understandings informed by western science. Inherent in both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese healing systems is the belief that humans are an extension of nature and therefore, the theoretical principles developed were inherently designed to mimic nature and facilitate healing by adhering to vitalistic principles reflected in nature. These principles include the tri-doshic and five element (wu xing) systems of Ayurvedic and TCM, respectively, both of which relate human anatomy, physiology, pathology and dietary and herbal therapies to, in Ayurveda, vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water) (which themselves consist of earth, water, fire, wind, and ether); and in TCM huo (fire), tu (earth), jin (metal), shui (water), and mu (wood). In contrast, current western medical traditions possess no principles that inherently link human health with the living biological principles of nature, and only tangentially as an after thought, attempt to link health to behavior or lifestyle. Traditional healing systems inherently seek to bring human beings into a healthful balance with self in relation to their environment. In contrast, the focal point of Western medicine is symptom suppression, inhibiting the very healing response meant to restore homeostasis to the organism.

Roy Upton

Roy Upton is the founder, president, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). He has been working and practicing professionally as a herbalist since 1981, and he trained in Ayurvedic,... Read more

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