How Herbs Work

How Herbs Work

A herb contains constituents that hold the abilities to cause a specific effect upon the systems of the body, if the herb is chosen wisely then that effect can be a positive one, promoting healing, calming, supporting health, and wholeness (the holistic).

Using herbs to heal often conjures up thoughts of the cunning folk in the cottage on the edge of the village using little known spellbook and candle as they work their alchemies. In reality, the use of the constituents of any herb can be verified by scientific research.  Many of the prescribed medicines used by the medical professions today have their origin in herb constituents.

The question of “whether to use herbs, or visit the doctor” is often a matter of personal choice, but that choice needs to be considered using wisdom rather than declaring oneself a slave to one or the other. This is where ‘common sense’ comes into the question.

A question my old herb tutor once asked was “your friend falls down onto the floor, he is sweating, out of breath with pains across his chest and down his left arm, what would you do?”  The answer, “dial 999.” Is the correct one in this instance?

Using herbs to heal is not a cure-all for every illness, disability, or accident the human body can experience in a lifetime.  Science has advanced in leaps and bounds, especially over the past hundred years or so, and is becoming more and more capable of improving the opportunity of a comfortable and long life expectancy.

But, having said that, there is still a place where using herbal medicines to bring the body to its optimum performance, and when treating relatively minor (in the greater scheme of things) illnesses and accidents by using herbal medicines.

Some herbs can actually be better at healing than the drugs that originated with the herb in question.  So why herbs rather than conventional over the counter medicines?

To answer this we need to first consider what is meant by Holistic.

The word Holistic means “the whole”.  (There is a couple of Articles on the subject of Holistic and what it means in more depth to be found  in the 'Articles' pages)

And this encapsulates both the treatment of the body, mind, and spirit as a whole and the use of the whole of the plant.

Imagine the body as a motor car, if all its parts are running correctly, then the car will work to its optimum if somebody forgets to put petrol in, it stops.  If a small part of the engine isn’t maintained correctly it might still run but it won’t perform as it should; it might use more petrol, or perhaps won’t go as fast as it should or run as smoothly.  The body can be compared to the car; when all parts of the body are running as they should, the individual whose body it is will work to its optimum, and this doesn’t just include the moving parts or organs of the body, but the brain too is a finely tuned piece of equipment, the electrical box that controls the rest of the engine.

A holistic healer will consider the whole of the body and mind when diagnosing what ails the patient.  A patient who is complaining of aches and pains might well find themselves with ointment to rub on the affected parts, but will also be challenged as to their lifestyle, diet, what exercise is taken, how they live their life.  Each piece of the puzzle gives a reason why aches and pains are making life so miserable.

Go to your medical practitioner with an inability to sleep, headaches, feeling down and you will probably come away with tranquilizers.

Think about it?  Your doctor prescribes tranquillizers that treat the symptoms, drugs costing a fortune from drug companies, who know that once you are hooked, they have a lifetime of selling that particular drug to you.  Because the underlying problem is never treated, only the symptoms are being dealt with, which hides what really is causing the problem.  Which is why it’s very easy to end up taking prescription medication for years on end.

The Holistic way of treatment offers treatment to alleviate the symptoms, but it will also treat, and hopefully remove, what lays at the core, what it is that is causing the symptoms.  The Holistic way looks at and treats the body as a whole, with each organ, system, cell, etc as a part of the whole machine.

Herbs are a part of the Holistic way and we can use them in their entirety, usually the whole of the plant has something to offer, especially when taken as a whole, and to illustrate this, let’s look at the commonly prescribed treatment for pain, Aspirin.


The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid and is a synthetic derivative of the compound, salicin, which occurs naturally in some herbs, notably Willow Bark and Meadowsweet herb. Extracts of willow bark were traditionally used in folk medicine.  As early as 400 BC the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended a brew made from willow bark and willow leaves to treat labour pains.

In 1763 an English clergyman, The Reverend Edward Stone, carried out the first proper scientific study of herbal medicine when he described the benefits he observed after giving ground up willow bark to fifty of his parishioners who were all suffering from rheumatic fever.

Scientists, now aware of the pain-relieving properties of willow bark, struggled to strip it down to the exact ingredient responsible for its pain-relieving activity, and finally did so in the 1820s. They narrowed their search to salicin, an early form of the family of drugs named salicylates, of which Aspirin is a member.

Patients reported severe stomach upset from the salicylic acid extracted and separated from willow bark, and this posed a problem for scientists. They attempted to remedy this side effect by combining the acid with sodium to neutralize the acid, but it failed to reduce the stomach upsets.

A French chemist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt put an end to the dilemma in 1853, by adding acetyl chloride to the sodium salicylate mixture. He published the results of his findings but didn’t pursue his creation past this point, even though it upset the stomach less than the currently available compound.  Mr. Gerhardt saw no future in the time-consuming preparation of his recipe, which he felt did not improve much upon the original medicine. His decision left people holding their stomachs and stomaching the old standby, sodium salicylate.

Salvation came in 1897, in the person of a young Felix Hoffman, who sought, and found a drug to help relieve the painful symptoms of his father's arthritis. This driven chemist, an employee of the Bayer Company, found and dusted off Gerhardt's old publication, mixed a batch of the recipe, and discovered that it actually worked.

Hoffman used his connection to pitch his idea to his employer, and Bayer reluctantly agreed to produce the medicine they named Aspirin. They invented the name Aspirin by combining the initials A from acetyl chloride, the 'SPIR' from the plant they extracted the salicylic acid from, Spirae ulmaria (Meadowsweet), and the 'IN' because it was the common ending for medications at that time. Bayer launched Aspirin in powder form and as a tablet in 1915.

Aspirin was an instant success.

But, as with most over the counter medicines, there are side effects to this wonder drug.  Some patients still suffer some form of indigestion, and about one in 500 may get an allergic reaction usually itching.  Aspirin is usually prescribed for patients with heart problems because it thins the blood so the risk of blood clotting is lessened.   Did you know that if you suffer from high blood pressure and you take Aspirin you run the risk of bleeding of the lining of the stomach and ulcers?

Yet, if you were to use White Willow bark or Meadowsweet to counteract pain instead of the over the counter medicine Aspirin, the problems arising with the stomach when taking Aspirin are countermanded by other properties of the White Willow bark.  A matter of using the whole of what the willow bark has, without having to remove any of its constituents.

Clinical studies using Willow bark preparations have shown anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities, and also show a lack of stomach bleeding when using Willow bark or Meadowsweet.