To many people visiting this site, you may already know a great deal about herbs and herbalism. To others, you may be wondering - what is this "herbalism" thing all about anyway? For those, I offer one perspective, one take on what this whole thing is all about. Hope that you find something useful in this description.
So for most of human history people have relied on herbs for plants as a primary source of medicine in times of need. In most parts of the world that use has continued in an unbroken thread of history through to the present day. In the United States, use of herbs for health purposes was largely forgotten amongst most of the population for a number of decades. However, in recent years the interest in herbs has risen once again. And for good reason - herbs are quite helpful!
So for modern people living in the United States, to turn to herbs to better our health seems almost a strange question. People have always used plants this way, for the quite practical reason that they work. However, for many reasons, some people have become skeptical. In the age of very powerful pharmaceutical medications, how could something as common as a dandelion have any impact on human health? It seems far too simple, and most of us certainly didn't learn about this in school. But as it turns out, not only are the benefits there, but scientific research is increasingly showing their efficacy through clinical trials.
So to me, the question of why herbs has a couple answers. One is that since humans have consumed herbs for food and medicine throughout our history, our bodies have naturally evolved to benefit. So to consume herbs as our ancestors did could almost be seen as simply consuming a certain kind of food. Certain herbs such as dandelion, nettles, oats, or raspberry leaf, to name a few, are indeed quite rich in vitamins and minerals, and so literally are providing the physical nourishment our bodies get from food. And in the case of these herbs, often times the nutrients provided are less abundant in our modern diets, so to consume them is simply to re-gain some of the nourishment that our body could potentially not be getting enough of through our food.
In addition to the nutritional quality of many herbs, there are other aspects to the plant chemistry that benefit our bodies in very basic ways. A great example - the flavor bitter! This flavor is quite abundant in wild foods, and herbs, but has largely been bred out of our modern vegetables and grains to cater to people's aversion to the taste. But as it turns out, tasting the bitter flavor is actually quite beneficial! Simply tasting it initiates our digestive process, from the mouth with the secretion of saliva all the way through the GI tract and it's many digestive secretions. Whatever the exact cause may be, this jump-start to our digestion is incredibly useful, helping us to better assimilate our food and often relieving symptoms of indigestion. So simply ingesting herbs with a mild to strong bitter flavor before meals is often in and of itself going to lead to the many health benefits that come from a better-working digestive system.
So far I've talked about two ways that consuming herbs can improve our health simply inherent to the basic qualities that many herbs possess. But of course there is much more. Many herbs have specific, measurable effects on our various body systems. For example, hawthorn has been shown in clinical trials to improve measures of cardiovascular health, while elderberry has been shown to reduce illness time in the flu. These sorts of things lend themselves to the broad purposes of preventing future health problems, supporting efforts for healing in conjunction with pharmaceuticals, or addressing an issue that is "sub-clinical" before it becomes more problematic.
If it isn't clear so far, what I mean to say is that herbs are not a substitute for pharmaceutical medication. There are many things that can be achieved with pharmaceuticals which cannot with herbs. But herbs can be an important contribution to someone's health, either in conjunction with medication or before medication is needed. And of course if used in conjunction, this must be done safely, so please consult with someone before doing so.
The uses of herbs are many: from nutrition, to specific health effects, to simply helping people feel good, there are countless ways that the huge plethora of plants we call "herbs" can be of benefit of to us. And the good news is several of them are probably growing right in your backyard!
Well, I think that's it for now. Hopefully I've provided a little bit of a taste of the the benefit of herbs to those that may be unfamiliar. I'm quite grateful for all of the plants that surround our built environments and wilderness areas alike. I hope that you will be too!