Healing from Mother Nature
The holistic healing philosophy of Greek Medicine states that Man is essentially a product of Nature, or the natural environment. Health is living in harmony with Nature, and disease results when this harmony and balance are upset. Healing is restoring this lost harmony and integration.
Man and all other living beings on this planet grew and evolved within this all-pervasive biosphere, and have been relying on it for their survival, for food and medicine, for millions of years. The use of medicinal plants in healing is not exclusive to the human species; when an animal in the wild gets sick or feels out of sorts, it will stop eating and munch on some healing herbs until it feels better. Herbal medicine amongst humans first evolved as an imitation of this universal healing practice of the animal kingdom.
And so, herbal medicine is a universal practice among all the world's traditional medical systems, which developed systems or models of herbal healing based on the holistic healing principles and concepts inherent to that system. Greek Medicine is no exception to this rule, and bases its own system of herbal medicine upon its core concepts: the Four Basic Qualities, the Four Elements, the Four Humors and the Four Temperaments. The practical details of Greek Medicine's system of herbal healing grew out of the accumulated clinical experience of generations of Greek physicians.
Any system of herbal medicine, to be viable, must have both a theoretical and a practical aspect. Theory is necessary to guide the observations and hypotheses of the physician in formulating a diagnosis and treatment strategy. Practical experience, either one's own or transmitted from one's teachers, is necessary to select the right herbs and medicines, which actually work.
Hippocrates, in his writings, warns against the dangers of letting theory jump too far ahead of clinical practice and what actually produces results. Stressing the necessity of tradition and a practical approach, he said:
"Foolish the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients."
A Brief Historical Overview of Herbal Medicine
The origins of herbal medicine lie in the common empirical experience of the human race, in observing which plants the animals ate when they were feeling sick, and following their example. From these origins, augmented by centuries of experiential trial and error, a body of knowledge and lore developed in each region of the world, which became the world's indigenous folk medicine traditions.
The folk medicine of the village healer was immediate and practical, consisting of "this herb for this illness, that herb for that", with a bare minimum of theory behind it. From these empirical roots the world's great traditional medical systems evolved, in which the physician's selection and use of the appropriate herbs was guided not just by clinical experience, but also by medical theories and principles. In Greece, this happened with Hippocrates.
Throughout history, there has been a great amount of exchange, trade and commerce in herbs and other natural medicinal substances, as traditional healers in each region of the world wanted to secure access to effective remedies that produced results. And so, there is a great degree of overlap between the herbal pharmacopeias of the world's great traditional medical systems.
Traditional healing wisdom and good old common sense told the common man for hundreds, even thousands of years that Nature's botanical medicines were the best way of health and healing. All the world's great religions all have passages from their sacred texts advocating the use of herbs for health and healing.
Greek Medicine is based on the concept of Medicatrix Naturae - that Mother Nature is a healing goddess. The remedies for all man's ills are to be found in the biosphere, or the world of Nature, which alone heals.
Ecological science also tells us that this is so. The entire animal kingdom and all sentient beings depend on the plant kingdom for food, for medicine, indeed for the very air we breathe. The tremendous and selfless sacrifice made by the plant kingdom to ensure the continuance of Life cannot be overestimated.
When viewed from the perspective of medical history as a whole, man's current infatuation with chemical medicine is only a recent abberation. Throughout the vast majority of mankind's history, herbs and other natural medicinal substances were the mainstay of medical practice. Only in the late 19th century did the switchover to chemical medicine start to happen; after the introduction of antibiotics as the new "wonder drugs" in the 1930s, the triumph of synthetic pharmaceutical drugs seemed complete.
Out of the vast universe of plants with medicinal properties, those most preferred and used by the world's traditional medical systems were mainly those which were gentle and safe yet effective. In Chinese herbal medicine, for example, there are three classes of drugs:
Superior Grade: Tonics that build health and vitality
Middle Grade: Therapeutic agents to adjust bodily functions
Inferior Grade: Harsh, potent drugs with high toxicity
Traditional Greek herbal medicine echoes this sentiment. The writings of Hippocrates and Galen clearly show that they gave priority to the nutritive, tonic approach over therapeutic intervention.
It was only when medicine began to lose track of the traditional holistic and vitalistic priorities of Greek Medicine in supporting and building the natural resistance of the organism that doctors began to look for stronger and stronger drugs and radical intervention.
This search for strong medicine led first to an increasing emphasis on potent, toxic botanicals like opiates, Henbane and Belladonna and a gradual abandonment of the gentler, safer remedies that had once been the mainstay of herbal medicine. It then led to the use of harsh, inorganic mineral drugs and toxic mercury preparations like Calomel. And finally, with the advent of antibiotics, synthetic pharmaceuticals took over.
Behind the PR blitz of the pharmaceutical companies heralding the latest "wonder drug" lies the self-serving profit motive of having a drug that can be exclusively patented and owned. You see, God holds the patent on herbs, and He isn't selling out!
After a century or so of the chemical approach to medicine, its defects are becoming increasingly clear, in contrast to the natural, holistic benefits of the herbal approach. These defects include negative, debilitating side effects and the prevalence of drug-induced iatrogenic diseases. Antibiotics, once hailed as "wonder drugs", are now powerless against many "superbugs" with resistance to multiple antibiotics.
This isn't to negate the benefits of many modern drugs, which can truly be lifesavers in medical emergencies. But for the chronic, degenerative diseases that now plague mankind. herbal medicine is the answer.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicine is the use of plants and other natural substances in healing. Although plants and botanical medicines are the mainstay of the world's great herbal healing traditions, not all the natural substances used for medicine are of plant origin. Botanical medicines make up about 85% of traditional pharmacopeias, with mineral substances comprising about 10% and those of animal origin about 5%.
In botanical medicines, all parts of the plant are used. These include herbs, leaves, flowers, fruits, kernels, seeds, pods, peels, rinds, barks, resins, essences, stems and roots. In the Bible, the book of Genesis tells us that the fruit of the tree was used for food, and the leaf for medicine. And so it is with many plants - one part is used for food, and another is used for medicine.
Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." There is no clear distinction between food and medicine; they are all part of a vast continuum. In Chinese herbal medicine, and in Greek Medicine, the higher the tonic or nutritive value of the herb or medicine, the more highly it is valued. Herbal medicines are superior to synthetic drugs because they have the nutritive value that the drugs lack.
With medicine as well as with food, the more natural, whole and unrefined a substance is, the higher it is in nutritive value, and the better it is assimilated and metabolized by the body. A pharmaceutical drug is a very potent, refined substance that has been designed for a very narrow, specific purpose; and so, it is not metabolized in a balanced, harmonious way by the body and its humors, which creates a whole host of negative side effects.
There is a lot of misleading information put out there by the medical and pharmaceutical industries about the dangers of herbs; this is grossly exaggerated. Although it's true that not all herbs are safe and innocuous, their numbers are very limited. About two thirds of medicinal herbs are quite gentle, safe and mild; about a quarter more of them are potent enough to warrant care in their selection, administration and dosage; and of all the medicinal herbs there are, only about 5 percent are really potent and toxic. By comparison, thousands die each year from the negative side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.
Nevertheless, the astute herbalist must know not only which herbs are indicated for which conditions, but also which are contraindicated because their basic natures are unsuitable. If an herb produces an unpleasant or undesirable reaction, it's usually because the dosage was excessive, or that it was misprescribed; this usually happens only with the more potent herbs. Contrast this with the use of pharmaceutical drugs: negative side effects, to a greater or lesser extent, of one kind or another, are usually inevitable, no matter which drug is chosen.
The basic principle of herbal medicine is this: that the inherent qualities of the substances we take into our bodies, whether as food or as medicine, are incorporated into the organism and its functioning, exerting their effects and influences according to their natures. All traditional medical systems, including Greek Medicine, have developed conceptual structures and guidelines for studying and determining these effects, which guide the selection and use of herbs.
Usually, medicines with qualities and actions contrary or complementary to those of the disorder are used to return the organism to a state of balance. Deficiencies are supplemented, and excesses purged. Excessive heat is cooled, and excessive coldness is warmed and dispersed. Hyperfunction is sedated, and hypofunction is stimulated.
Herbs Versus Pharmaceutical Drugs
To truly understand and appreciate the healing potential of herbal medicine, we must keep firmly in mind the key differences between herbal medicines and pharmaceutical drugs, and the advantages of the natural herbal approach. The main advantages are:
Herbs work with Nature, not against it. Herbs work by enhancing the natural physiological functions and defensive healing reactions of the organism. Many modern medicines, on the other hand, suppress key bodily functions and block these natural healing reactions. Over the long term, this negative approach wears down the inherent vitality and resistance of the organism.
Herbs are gentler, safer, and have far fewer negative side effects. The negative side effects of pharmaceutical drugs cause thousands of unnecessary deaths every year. Herbal medicines follow the key Hippocratic precept: First, do no harm.
Herbs have the nutritive value that synthetic drugs lack. No pharmaceutical drug that your doctor can prescribe will be able to rebuild your body; only whole foods, nutritional supplements and herbs can do that. Many herbs are nutrient-rich superfoods; as whole natural substances, their nutrients are better absorbed and retained by the organism than even the finest natural vitamins, which are fractionated, concentrated extracts.
Herbs have the biological intelligence of the Life Force inherent in them. Herbs are living medicines that can vitalize and energize the organism; synthetic drugs, as lifeless substances, can't do this. Also, the biological intelligence inherent in herbs gives many of them a bivalent capacity to adjust or optimize key bodily functions, like digestion, circulation, metabolism and immunity. Synthetic drugs, which lack this biological intelligence, work only in one direction, and their dosages must be closely monitored to avoid excess or overdose.
The wheels of Nature (and herbs) grind slowly, but they work very well. Herbs usually take longer to work than synthetic drugs, but they work naturally, and get to the root of the problem. Synthetic drugs may give you the quick fix, but this is often deceptive; many times, pharmaceutical drugs merely mask the symptoms, suppress the body's natural healing processes, and may even drive the root cause deeper into the organism. The choice is yours: Do you want to be healed slower, but better, or quickly but not as well?
Many herbal therapies are unequaled by synthetic drugs. There are certain things that only natural herbs can do for the body, which will probably never be matched by any synthetic pharmaceutical drug. These are:
Hepatoprotective: Balancing, normalizing and optimizing liver and bile metabolism; regenerating liver cells. Many herbs benefit the liver, the principal organ of the Natural Faculty, in this way, because they're only natural. In contrast, many synthetic pharmaceutical drugs have very negative or damaging effects on the liver, and are contraindicated with any history of liver disease. With the liver being one of the most important internal organs of the body, do you really want to subject it to the stress and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs?
Immunomodulatory: Optimizing immune system function by reducing harmful allergic or autoimmune reactions while enhancing positive immune response to protect against infections. Conventional medicine's best answer to autoimmune disorders is a global suppression of all immune response, both good and bad, which impairs the body's ability to fight infection. Immunomodulatory activity is a bivalent action of herbs, and a manifestation of the biological intelligence inherent in them. Synthetic drugs, which lack this biological intelligence, are incapable of this immunomodulatory activity.
Alterative: Cleansing the blood and lymph and improving detoxification and eliminative organ functioning. Only herbs can assist the body in its vital cleansing work, and reduce the toxic load on the organism.
Adaptogenic: Adjusting, stimulating and optimizing the functioning of multiple organ systems to enhance the healing and protective responses of the organism and improving its resistance to stress and disease. The nonspecific, broad spectrum action of herbal tonics and restoratives is unmatched by any synthetic drug. Instead of producing negative side effects, herbs deliver multiple side benefits.
The Greek Way of Herbal Healing
In classical Greek science and medicine, everything in the universe has its own inherent nature and temperament, or balance of the Four Basic Qualities: Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry. This is the basis of how Greek Medicine analyzes the natures and properties of herbs.
To more precisely calibrate how Hot, Cold, Wet or Dry an herb was, Galen introduced a system of four degrees for each of the Four Basic Qualities. This allowed the physician and pharmacist to formulate and prescribe medicines more accurately.
The usual method of herbal treatment is to use medicines whose natures are contrary or complementary to the nature of the disorder to bring the body back into balance. In conditions of plethora or excess, eliminative herbs with qualities contrary to those of the offending humor are used to reduce or disperse it. In deficiency conditions, tonic herbs with qualities or essences that the body lacks or needs are used to restore health and wholeness.
In addition, Greek Medicine recognizes that various herbs have different affinities for certain organs, tissues or parts of the body. Herbs whose actions focus on the heart are called cordials. Herbs that treat conditions of the head are called cephalics. Liver tonics are called hepatics, whereas digestive tonics are called stomachics, and so on.
The basic formula or method of herbal treatment in Greek Medicine is this: Use herbs that are contrary or complementary to the nature of the disorder in kind, yet equal to the imbalance by degree; let them also have an affinity for, or pertain to, the part being treated. If these basic guidelines of treatment aren't followed, there's the risk that the physician will cure one disorder only to cause another more desperate than the first.
Greek herbal medicine, like other traditional systems of herbal healing, uses the pronciples of herbal tastes and energetics to further refine their therapeutic classification and usage of herbs. Let me illustrate with a few examples:
All herbs that improve stomach and digestive funtion in some way are called stomachics. Bitter stomachics are cooling and detoxifying, and are indicated for hot, inflammatory, hyperacidic and bilious stomach conditions. Aromatic stomachics gently harmonize and stimulate gastric function in cases of sluggishness and congestion of the stomach. Pungent stomachics are even hotter and more stimulating in their action, and strongly eliminate excess coldness and phlegm.
Out of all the various kinds of herbs that relieve pain, anodynes relax and disperse muscular aches and pains through their gentle warming and dispersing action.
Greek Medicine is a constitutionally based healing system that treats the person, not the disease. In herbal prescribing, it's also necessary to adjust the formula to the constitutional nature of the person being treated. For example, those with a stronger constitution will be better able to withstand the rigors of radical purgatives, whereas those of a more delicate constitution will require a more moderate and gradual cleansing.
In herbal prescribing, the weather, climate and environmental conditions must also be taken into account. For example, if the weather or season is cold, a formula to warm the body and disperse chills must be more heating in nature than if the chills are caught in relatively warm weather.
In Greek Medicine, several different innovative and efficient herbal preparations, designed to deliver maximum healing power to the site of the disorder, are used in treatment. Herbal teas, pills or powders are mixed and matched with various standard preparations, like syrups or tinctures, which are kept on hand. External or topical treatment methods, like compresses, liniments, salves, cataplasms or poultices, and fomentations are also used.
The Hippocrates quote at the end of the introductory section of this article is from the following web page: www.runningbearartwork.com/herbal.html