Every civilization has its “medicine men” and women, and until the 20th century healers used herbal and other natural remedies for the majority of their work.
Medicinal herbs, particularly, have been in use in herbal healing for thousands of years, and most of the herbs we know today were already thriving and available long before humans appeared on earth.
Records of the use of herbal medicines by healers reach back to almost 6,000 years, in both written and picture format. Oral histories put the development of the discipline much further back, however, with archaeological records suggesting cultures were using medicinal plants in the Paleolithic Era 60,000 years ago.
According to a publication by the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems and Indigenous Research Partnerships, when explorers reached North America they were impressed with the advanced medical knowledge of local healers. These men and women had therapeutic practices that worked by balancing human physiology through sweat baths, fasting and the use of plant derivatives like oregano oil and hawthorn berries.
The development of modern herbalism as a science began with Hippocrates, who developed the concept of the Four Humours around 400 BC. This formed the basis for a number of herbalists through the centuries, including Hildegard von Bingen in the 11th century and Nicholas Culpeper in the 17th. During the 20th century, however, humanity saw a major shift to modern medicine, although much of this is based on the original plant derivatives used in the first place.
The 1960s in North America saw a large-scale revival of “folk herbalism” as a stand against institutionalized medicine. This culminated in the founding of organizations like the American Herbalists Guild (1989) and United Plant Savers (1994), with missions to promote clinical herbalism as a viable profession and to protect endangered medicinal plants. As modern healthcare has evolved, we have begun to realize the importance of different forms of healing. Many healthcare organizations now embrace traditional methods together with conventional ones in the application of patient-centered care.
The incorporation of herbal medicine and the current trend towards natural remedies has given birth to the modern concept of integrated medicine, also known as integrative health care. Instead of the former term “alternative medicine,” which paints a picture of less-than-authoritative practices, integrative medicine has become established as a holistic practice and often has close relations with modern medical practice.
The return to herbal medicine is endorsed by the World Health Organization in its 2014 to 2023 strategy, which recently acknowledged the value and importance of using what has worked in other cultures for many centuries. The global industry is booming, and herbalism is growing in influence daily. The global market was valued at around US $72 billion in 2016 and is expected to continue an upward trajectory for the foreseeable future. Brick and mortar schools are almost equalled by digital training in herbalism as proponents everywhere work to gain knowledge and understanding in this field.
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