Introducing herbsearching


Aim of article (5 minute read)

You will read:
– A little history on the use of herbs
– How there is an abundance of natural medicines in the world all around us
– Why herbal research – herbsearching – is important.

The use of plants, not only as medicines, but as part of daily healthcare routines, is as old as the hills. Hippocrates, the Greek Physician who produced his medical treaties up to his death in 370 B.C., wrote extensively about the use of plants for human health. In his Regimen for Acute Diseases he writes about the use of barley gruel for stomach complaints, the topical application of barley and vetch heated and applied to abdominal pains, black hellebore or purple spurge for pain below the diaphragm, and so it goes on. He also observes the effects of climate on disease, and the importance of how we grow our food “the condition of the plant depends on the condition of the earth in which it grows”. I am always humbled when I read writings from centuries ago; we have much to learn as scientists today from people’s ability at that time to patiently and simply observe the world around them. Hippocrates was the master of observation. (Hippocratic Writings ISBN 0140444513).

I just love this quote and love this film:

“The closer you look, the more magical and magnificent and mysterious something is…it is our problem that we don’t look close enough”.

Bill Mitchell in Numen, the film.

I’ve been a scientist all of my life and I love science. I do think sometimes we have stopped the practice of gently observing and that we are not looking closely enough. When I go and speak at universities (where I worked for many years), students studying medical and biomedical subjects are often surprised at the scale of traditional wisdom regarding the use of plants as medicines that extends back thousands of years. I can’t blame them for not knowing that this treasure trove of information and healing practice exists, because my education and career path did the same to me. I’m lucky I’m now in a job where I’m having a crash course in the world of plants and it has brought a whole new perspective to my work.

This traditional knowledge from around the globe is captured in many incredible records of how plants were grown, harvested prepared and administered to help the human body in times of dis-ease. There are many finely detailed referenced works on plants and their known medicinal uses. The Potter’s Herbal Cyclopaedia is one example of an anthology of 700 plants and details of their phytochemical constituents and referenced medicinal uses.

The knowledge on Black Hellebore (Helleborus Niger L.) has advanced of course since Hippocrate’s times, and we know the plant to be a source of potent cardiac glycosides – a group of compounds from which many pharmaceuticals are derived today used to increase cardiac output (force and rate of contraction of the heart). Plants are the most wonderful chemists.

So what is herbsearching? I’m really interested in not just the science behind the herbs, but who is doing the research and how. Finding good quality evidence is a challenge, and there are many skills that budding herbalist, herbal scientist or medical researcher interested in the use of herbs, needs to get started. I hope through this blog to explore the research techniques being used, and to look for the connections between traditional and allopathic (what we might call modern-day) medicine.