Herbs help the body to heal itself, rather than just suppressing the symptoms. A classic example is the treatment of high blood pressure. The appropriate herbal treatment can not only bring blood pressure down but will also restore the healthy function of the circulatory system, so that after a period of treatment your blood pressure should remain normal without any medication. Similarly, taking echinacea will improve the function of your immune system, which will then be better at fighting off disease.
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COMPLEX MEDICINE FOR COMPLEX BODIES
Medicinal herbs are complex mixtures of many constituents, which mirror the complexity of our bodies. Many of these constituents improve the function of a specific organ or bodily system so that the body can fight the disease more effectively. Herbs can harness our natural ability to heal: working along with our immune system, they gently nudge our bodies towards recovery. The constituents of herbs also have high bioavailability, which means that we absorb them well and therefore do not need large doses. Our bodies are adapted to digesting and absorbing plants, while many constituents of herbs are similar to those of fruit and vegetables and equally beneficial for our health.
Plants that are used medicinally can be viewed as a category of healing substances that sit somewhere between pharmaceuticals and food. Many have proven medicinal properties but are akin to food in their biochemical composition and the way in which they are absorbed. Some herbs are very familiar in the kitchen: garlic, thyme or blueberries, for example. Most are strictly medicinal yet gentle enough to be taken every day. Modern living has meant that people have grown so detached from nature that they can sometimes perceive the most natural medicine in the world as alien and hazardous.
The complexity of the biochemical composition of each herb is crucial to its effectiveness and safety. It is a modern misconception favoured by many scientists that a single substance makes better medicine than a complex mixture. It is easier to research, but is it better for our health?
Medicinal herbs are often referred to as crude medicines, and attempts are continually made to isolate the individual components to try to convert these into pharmaceuticals. Many medicinal plants have yielded or inspired useful drugs such as ephedrine, digoxin or aspirin. But considering the huge number of medicinal plants that are known, the quantity of single-component pharmaceuticals that have been derived from plants is relatively small. It seems that the active constituents of herbs rarely perform better in isolation. The reason is that plant constituents work in a synergistic way: the combined effect of many components is stronger than that of any individual component. Moreover, medicinal plants often display a curious combination of strong-acting constituents – which have potential side effects – with the protective constituents that moderate this potential. For instance, using dandelion leaf tea as a diuretic could lead to depleting potassium levels in the body if it wasn’t for the fact that dandelion leaf contains enough potassium to compensate for the loss.
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