Updated: September 14, 2010 2:38 AM
Introduction to the World of Herbs
From the ancient courts of the pharaohs to the aisles of our modern health food stores, the amazing world of herbs and their mythical lore have fascinated mankind. Stories and legends about the secret powers of herbs can be found all over the world, and detailed volumes outlining their specific uses have been treasured by both kings and peasants. This article will explore many facets of these natural herbs and examine their important role in both ancient and modern societies.
Enhancing Lives with Healing Formulas
Herbs have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes, to produce cosmetics and to preserve and enhance the quality of food. In ancient times, healing formulas existed for almost every know disease. Specific conditions were treated with a variety of methods such as tinctures, teas, compresses or by inhaling the rejuvenating fragrances of essential oils. Even magic love potions could be obtained by those who desired amorous pleasures.
Culinary Uses of Herbs
Perhaps the most universal use of herbs, past and present, is as additions to virtually every type of food. In accordance with Hippocrates' admonition to "Let food be your medicine," culinary herbs are used in every culture to prevent spoilage and to increase the digestibility and healing properties of foods.
The Confirmation of Modern Science
Modern science is beginning to rediscover and confirm the healing power of herbs. The story of herbs involves a journey to all of the continents of the world and includes the methods of herbal practitioners such as the ancient apothecaries of Celtic Britain, the medicine men of the American Indians and the highly skilled herbalists of ancient China.
Natural medicine and herbs are experiencing a global renaissance. For example, nearly 50% of the United States population currently uses alternative therapies of some type. Herbal medicine is foremost among these. However, the re-introduction of herbs into western culture has not occurred without friction.
The Regulation of Herbal Medicine
The market has been flooded with all kinds of herbal remedies. In response, the FDA has introduced a number of laws that prohibit herb manufacturers from claiming medical benefits resulting from the use of these products. But increasing numbers of medical doctors are recognizing the value of herbal medicine and some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies have introduced lines of herbal products.
Despite the attempt to slow down the popularization of herbs, this healing modality is here to stay and to flourish. The amount of documented research is increasing every day, and pioneering physicians have introduced a variety of herbs including garlic, echinacea and St. John's wort to millions of Americans. Some of the world's foremost experts in herbology are James A. Duke, Ph.D., Charles Schultz, M.D., and Gary Young, N.D. Their lectures and books have popularized today's best-selling herbal products and explored in depth the science, power and magic of these herbs. (Photo Courtesy of Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons)
The Cornucopia of Herbal RemediesFrom the rain forests of South America to the depths of the world's oceans, scientists are discovering an increasing number of plants with medicinal properties. Yet we may be just scratching the surface of a tremendous natural resource that can provide cures for deadly diseases including cancer and HIV/AIDS. The vast cornucopia of powerful herbal remedies promoted through mass merchandizing and the glitzy advertising campaigns of the twenty first century bear testimony to man's inherent belief that the primary source for health and rejuvenation has always been and always will be nature's pharmacy. (Photo courtesy of neurovelho, Wikimedia Commons)
The Mythical Origins of Herbal Medicine
Man’s Botanical Allies
From the earliest times, man has depended on the bounty of nature for all of his needs. The powerful forces of nature have been regarded as otherworldly and mysterious, capable of bestowing both tremendous benefit and unspeakable destruction. In his quest to understand and conquer the awesome energies of nature, man has diligently sought to discover the secret powers of plants--his primary source for food, clothing, shelter and weapons. And in times of pain and illness, man has instinctively turned to his botanical allies for comfort and healing.
The Mystical Lore of Plants
The mystical lore of plants crosses virtually every cultural boundary. For example, a 60,000 year old burial site excavated in Iraq included eight different medicinal plants. This evidence of the spiritual significance of plants is echoed around the globe. Shamanistic medicine, alive and well in traditional societies today, often incorporates the use of hallucinogenic plants which enable the herbal practitioner to reach unseen realms to obtain higher knowledge and guidance. (Photo coutesy of Badagnani, Wikimedia Commons)
Plants and Guardian Spirits
Many people have also believed that plants themselves possess souls or guardian spirits. As early as the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle attributed a "psyche", a type of lesser-order soul, to plants. In Hinduism, plants are often associated with specific deities. Shiva, the god of health, is sheltered by the bael tree. Likewise, in Buddhism the bo tree is revered as the primary feature of the site where Siddhartha attained his enlightenment.
Plants that play a central role in the lives of particular peoples often are given maternal, anthropomorphic identities. For some island dwellers, "Mother Coconut" yields food, oil, rope, clothing fibers and hard shells for a variety of uses. Similarly, the native peoples of the Andes in South America refer to the coca plant as Mama Coca.
Plants have not only been a traditional source of nurturance and blessing, but have alternately been believed to possess evil spirits. Who could doubt that maleficent inhabitants ensouled deadly plants such as belladonna, a key component in witches' brews and murderous poisons? Human wickedness aside, however, the vast majority of plants have served to soothe, to comfort, and to heal.
Ancient Herbal Symbolism
Herbal mythology is a facet of nearly every ancient civilization. The lotus, a symbol of irrepressible fertility, is revered in both Egyptian and Oriental cultures. The onion was not only a favorite food and medicinal plant of the Egyptians, but also out pictured their belief in the universe's multi-layered structure. The remarkable Egyptian pharmacy included some of today's most renowned herbs: myrrh, aloe, peppermint, garlic and castor oil.
Plants of the Gods
In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, the twelve primary gods each had favorite plants. These plants, living connections to the realms above, were used as symbols of the gods in literature and art. Less elevated herbs such as parsley, thyme and fennel were nevertheless employed for increased health and longevity.
The Alchemy of Herbs
Ancient Arabian doctors are credited as the founders of medieval alchemy--one of the most famous ancient mystical traditions. Their attempt to penetrate the inner workings of nature through experimentation with both plants and minerals has captured the imaginations of poets and playwrights for centuries.
Herbs and the Bible
Healing plants are also featured extensively in the Bible. The aphrodisiacal mandrake is mentioned in both Genesis (used by Rachel to gain the affections of Jacob) and in the allegorical poetry of the Song of Solomon. Of course, the most famous of all Biblical herbs are two of the Magi's gifts to the baby Jesus: frankincense and myrrh. In addition, a treasure trove of herbal mythology with both pagan and Christian roots exists in connection with the legendary Celts. (Photo courtesy of Trounce, Wikimedia Commons)
From Ancient Mythology to Curing DiseaseIn the melting pot of the early Americas, exotic herbal traditions included the herbal remedies of the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations, the herbs of the African black slaves and the many American Indian herbal rituals.The journey from the supernatural to the scientific is also recorded in the earliest written texts of the Chinese, Indian and European peoples. The ancient herbal mythologies live on in the beliefs of the majority of the world's populations who still rely on healing herbs. With modern science's confirmation of these ancient beliefs, herbs are now emerging as exciting potential cures for today's deadly diseases.
European Herbal Traditions
Contributions of the Greeks and Romans
The ancient Greeks left an indelible mark on the classical European medical tradition. Possibly the most famous of all doctors was Hippocrates, immortalized as the namesake of the Hippocratic Oath, who placed great emphasis on diet, fresh water, sunshine and exercise. The Romans likewise out pictured this approach to health in their incomparable system of aqueducts, the guarantors of fresh water.
The Romans contributed the second of the most outstanding ancient doctors, known to posterity as Pliny. Pliny was the author of an extraordinary work entitled Natural History. This amazing, 37-volume encyclopedia contains multitudinous facts about "plant sorceries" and draws on information gathered from traditions as far-flung as the herbal practices of the mist-shrouded Druids.
Classical Herbal Practitioners
Hippocrates and Pliny are joined by two other classical herbal practitioners born in the 1st century AD: Dioscorides and Galen. Dioscorides was the author of De Materia Medica, a work regarded as the cornerstone of modern botany and the most influential pharmaceutical guide prior to the modern era. Galen was a brilliant and highly successful Roman doctor. Galen was so closely associated with medicinal plants that "galenicals" and "galenic products" are terms still used today by pharmacists to differentiate herbal medicines from synthetic ones.
The Theory of the Four Humors
The ancient theory of the four humors was the theoretical foundation of health and disease from the days of Galen through the 17th century. This intriguing theory held that the four elements in nature--fire, air, water and earth--correspond to four fluids in the body--blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Herbs were believed to positively affect the humors through four properties: hot, dry, cold and moist.
Health, then, was a matter of balancing these humors of "juices". Herbs played a major role in ridding the body of excess juices. Accordingly, herbs such as celery and fennel that were used as laxatives, diuretics and in the induction of vomiting were highly prized.
Christianity and Herbalism
From 400AD to 1500AD, the Church controlled the lives of the populations of Europe not only through the Inquisition and the Crusades, but also through absolute dominion in the realms of science and medical knowledge. Herbal tradition managed to survive through assimilation into the monasteries of the day. Famous Christian mystics including Hildegard of Bingen continued to write about herbal medicine and to expand the knowledge of the healing properties of plants. Herbs were absolved of their pagan roots through baptism with new names such as St. John's Wort, Herb-of-the-Cross (vervain) and Solomon's Seal. (Photo cxourtesy of Henri Decaisne, Wikimedia Commons)
The horrific plagues that swept Europe in the Middle Ages fostered a renewed interest in herbal medicine. Physicians such as Nostradamus (even more famous for his accurate prophetic gifts) championed herbs and hygiene in the face of the more common, and far more deadly, practices of purging and bleeding.
The Doctrine of Signatures
During the Renaissance, a doctor of grand proportions took his place alongside imminent artists and scientists. Regarded by many as the founder of both homeopathy and pharmacology, Paracelsus is credited with popularizing the fascinating "doctrine of signatures". According to the doctrine, the medicinal use of plants is revealed in exterior signs or shapes that correspond to human organs. With the advent of the printing press, information of all types about herbal medicine proliferated and was standardized. The influence of imported herbs and the increased dissemination of knowledge made exotic foreign herbs and the unusual practices associated with them available in Europe as well.
The Transition to Modern Herbalism
With the advent of the printing press, information of all types about herbal medicine proliferated and was standardized. The influence of imported herbs and the increased dissemination of knowledge made exotic foreign herbs and the unusual practices associated with them available in Europe as well.
As modern medicine progressed in the 19th century, laboratories and chemical compounds gained precedence. By 1850AD, herbalism was effectively outlawed in most European countries through the requirement that herbalists possess medical certification. In the last 25 years, however, herbal medicine has been freed of these onerous limitations and has subsequently returned to the forefront of health and healing.
Indian Herbal Traditions
The Philosophy of Ayurveda
In the far distant past in the majestic Himalayas, the science of Ayrveda began a long evolution over the course of 5,000 years. A synergistic system which combines science, religion and philosophy, Ayurvedic medicine was originally practiced by the prophets known as rishis. Their wisdom formed the oral traditions that later became the Vedas, the most treasured of all Indian writings.
The first Ayurvedic medical school was founded in 800BC by Punarvarsu Atreya, now viewed by many as the founder of Ayurvedic health practices. Atreya's writings describe a grand total of 1,500 plants. Of these, he recommends 350 different plants as valuable sources of herbal medicine.
The Five Fundamental Types of Energy
Ayurvedic medicine postulates a system of five fundamental types of energy manifest as fire, air, water, earth and ether. These five energies combine to form the three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. These three principles correspond in many ways to the European theory of the four humors. Ayurvedic diagnosis, on the other hand, has more in common with Chinese and Tibetan medicine.
The Ayurvedic doctor first takes a case history of the patient. From here the diagnostic approaches of the East and West diverge. Rather than ordering blood tests and x-rays, the Ayurvedic practitioner then examines the face, skin, hair, hands and other external characteristics of the patient to ascertain the fundamental constitution and the current condition of the body. Rather than recommending as assortment of prescriptions, the Ayurvedic doctor advises an appropriate dietary regimen, behavioral modifications and the use of different types of herbal medicines. (Photo courtesy of Ken Wieland, Wikimedia Commons)
Indian herbs are classified according to a system of twenty attributes and six tastes. The attributes and tastes include inherent medicinal qualities such as cold, dry, hot, wet, etc. For example, warming herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne might be recommended to correct a cold, damp condition.
Ayurvedic treatments are diverse and highly individualized. A complete course for the correction of imbalances may entail an assortment of remedies and practices as diverse as washes, enemas, powders, infusions, incense burning, meditation, and chanting.
The Spreading Influence of Indian Traditions
Although Ayurveda was dominated by Islamic medicine following the rise of the Mogul empire in the 16th century, the tradition survived in the villages and temples of India. Not only has Ayurveda influenced the herbal traditions of China and Tibet, but is now attracting increased attention in Japan and the West. In fact, the World Health Organization has resolved to promote Ayurvedic practice in developing countries.
The Future of Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine
From the early years of the spice trade and the resulting explorations of the east to the liberation of India in this century, Ayurvedic medicine has served to enhance the lives of millions. Once exotic and unknown in this country, today Ayurvedic remedies can be found on the shelves of most health food stores. Popular Ayurvedic herbs include licorice, gotu kola, castor oil, and the omnipresent garlic. Ayurvedic attempts to reconcile health and well being with the more profound aspects of life has notable appeal in the modern West. The wisdom of ancient traditions continues to gain converts among those seeking greater balance and meaning in life as well as physical healing. (Photo courtesy of Sreekumar, Wikimedia Commons
Chinese Herbal Traditions
Herbal Traditions of Ancient China
The fascinating herbal traditions of ancient china are codified in two of the most colorful medicinal classics: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine and the Divine Husbandman’s Classic. The first document discusses the effects of natural laws on health and outlines how man can live in harmony with nature. The second treatise records the earliest Chinese herbal remedies.
Chinese Theory of Healing
Like many other ancient traditions, Chinese theories seek to explain not only health and illness, but also the very underpinnings of the universe. They hold that the dynamic interaction of the Tai Chi or fundamental life energy, occurs through the balancing of yin and yang. These complementary forces are symbolic of male and female energies.
As the yin and yang interact, they are further divided into the five elements-fire, air, water, earth, and wood-a concept clearly akin to both the European four humors theory and the Ayurvedic five energies. Herbs, classified according to these elements are combined with the well-developed Chinese practice of acupuncture to realign the body on subtle, unseen levels for optimal healing.
The Diverse Nature of Chinese Medicine
The highly diverse nature of Chinese medicine is evidenced by the sheer numbers of recorded herbal remedies. There are over 5,000 traditional formulas! However, students of Chinese medicine in the Southwest College of Acupuncture in Santa Fe, New Mexico focus on only about three hundred specific formulas in their four-year program leading the Doctor of Oriental Medicine degree. Traditional formulas are also not the only stand-bys for Chinese herbalists. Students have been taught from time immemorial to create individualized formulas for their patients. This approach may be deemed more appropriate for complicated or rare conditions.
Chinese herbal preparations can be utilized as tinctures or alcoholic extracts, but are generally prepared as decoctions. The mixtures of roots and bark are boiled and the resulting liquid is taken two or three times each day. Medicinal foods including ginger and horseradish are also common remedies as well as standard flavorings in Chinese cuisine.
Influence of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the Far East
The fact that Korean, Tibetan, and Japanese herbal traditions are quite similar to those of Chinese medicine is no mystery. Native Japanese medicine, known as kampoh, was introduced into Japan in the 5th century BC by Buddhist monks. Those monks had largely derived their knowledge of the healing arts from Chinese medicine. Likewise, almost all of the Chinese medicinal herbs are used in both Tibet and Korea. In addition, the concept of yin and yang plays a central role in all of the traditions of the Far East. The branches are differentiated through some variations in cultural emphasis and the use of particular plants such as Korean ginseng.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Today
Interestingly enough, herbal medicine has a strong position in communist China today. The lack of available medical education and trained physicians has served as an impetus for emphasizing herbs as the appropriate medicine for the Chinese people.
Chinese medicine is also one of the fastest growing alternative health modalities in the west. Naturopathic schools, massage schools and other forms of holistic health training now include Oriental medicine as part of their core curriculums. There are large numbers of acupuncturists and herbal practitioners even in rural areas of the United States. Popular Chinese herbs inclue not only the ubiquitous ginseng, but also other well-known plants such as ginko and ephedra. The future of Chinese medicine seems assured and serves as a unique and powerful meeting ground for East and West.
Herbal Traditions of the American Continent
The incredible ancient civilizations of South America-the Incas, the Mayans, and the Aztecs-possessed as almost unbelievable level of advanced knowledge in mathematics, astronomy and engineering. Could their superlative achievements in architecture and city planning really have been combines with the ritualized practices of human sacrifice and torture? Did people who knew so well how to build and how to kill also know how to heal? And what of “primitive” tribal Indians? Can a jungle full of poisonous snakes and eerie ruins yield life-giving herbal medicines?
The jungles of South America unquestionably possess a wealth of native plants. Some of these plants have been harvested for centuries to produce mind altering potions used for initiation rites and for the induction of prophetic trances. Others have yielded powerful medicines. With the coming of the Europeans during the colonial period and the increased deforestations now occurring due mainly to the recent invasion of the timber and cattle industries, the jungle is shrinking and the medicine men are becoming a dying legacy.
The recognized value of the disappearing treasure of the jungle has spurred some scientists and researchers to begin learning from the medicine men. However, saving the jungle will not be an easy task in the face of the economic power of the multinational companies affected. Perhaps the demand for popular herbs South America and the Caribbean including lapacho, pareira (curare) and cinchona will help to favorably determine the questionable future of the rain forests.
Shamanistic societies form the wetlands of the southern Unites States to the frozen wasteland of Alaska have practiced herbal traditions that have been aimed at healing both the physical and spiritual dimensions of illness. A variety of ceremonies and rites have been involved not only in healing rituals, but also in the harvesting and storing of herbs. The spiritual energy of herbs was paramount to these peoples. Tobacco, now the central focus of unprecedented government investigations, legislation, and trial, was once a sacred shamanistic herb for most Native American herbs.
Although the European settlers originally rejected Native American herbal medicine, contact with Indians at the frontier eventually converted them both to indigenous herbs and to some of the native therapeutic practices as well. By the end of the 18th century, and American named Samuel Thompson (1769-1843) had developed a regimen based on native herbs and vapor baths that were clearly reminiscent of Native American sweat lodges.
Eclecticism was yet another marriage of Native American and European herbal medicine. Eclecticism, founded by Dr. Wooster Beech (1794-1868) was a sophisticated system of medicine that attempted to combine the fledgling scientific knowledge of physiology and pathology with herbal medicine. Practitioners inspired by these two approaches further developed them into what was called Physiomedicalism. This rather peculiar medical movement saw the stomach as the seat of disease and prescribed herbs such as pokeweed to induce vomiting in order to cleanse the digestive system. Other herbs, including the increasingly popular herbs Echinacea and goldenseal, were then used to aid in the patient’s recovery.
Herbal medicine experienced an unfortunate decline early in the twentieth century due to the government’s decision to exclusively grant financial support to conventional medical schools-none of which teach herbal medicine. On the fringe for nearly a century, herbs are now gaining the attention of both modern science and the pharmaceutical industry.
The herbal industry in the United States has grown phenomenally in the last ten years and the restoration of herbal medicine is virtually guaranteed. The list of popular herbs in North America grows almost daily by leaps and bounds. Lobelia, slippery elm, witch hazel, blue cohosh, and evening primrose are but a few of the herbs that are becoming mainstream in America today.
Herbal Medicine in Africa
The herbal traditions of Africa have been influenced by am amazing range of predecessors. The pharmacy of ancient Egypt, documented in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical test from 1600 BC, included herbs such as myrrh that were indigenous to Africa. The spread of Arabic culture across northern Africa in the 8th century produced lasting effects. Arabian alchemy and Avicenna’s Cannon of Medicine considerably increased the number of herbs in common use in Africa.
Herbal medicine in the more remote areas of Africa has been less affected by other cultures. In the northern savanna and in the jungle, traditional herbalism is still practiced in the ancient manner established by generations of ancestors. However, the merging of modern and traditional medicine is occurring on some fronts. A medical center in Ghana provides both traditional herbalism and conventional medicine in a holistic approach that is finally helping to dispel the colonial prejudice against African “with doctors.”
Popular African herbs now utilized in the western world include senna, aloe vera, buchu and devil’s claw. Modern research is also investigating the benefits of extracts of the pygeum tree for prostrate problems. Another promising avenue of research is the use of herbs from two shrubs-Bidelia ferruginea and Indigofera arrecta-in the treatment of diabetes.
Herbal Medicine in Australia
An astounding 60,000 years of tradition forms the foundation for Australian aboriginal herbal medicine. Unfortunately, the influx of European explorers and settlers in the 18th century including the well-known Captain Cook had a disastrous affect on the Aborigines and much of their native herbal traditions were lost. Many European herbs were imported and have now become naturalized. More recent Chinese immigrants have also brought their herbal traditions to Australia.
Today, however, Australian herbal medicine is having a renaissance of its own. Native Australian herbs including eucalyptus, tea tree, gotu kola, quinine (fever bark), and kava kava are among the top-sellers in the world-wide natural products market. The future of Australian herbal medicine now holds an exciting and expanding potential to flourish into the 21st century.
Herbalism and Modern Science
The herbal basis of at least 50% of modern drugs is indisputable. In many cases, chemical synthetics have been developed which mimic the effects of the active constituents in herbs. With the advent of powerful antibiotics, once heralded as “miracle drugs,” the use of herbs declined dramatically for decades. In a surprising turn-around, recent problems with increasingly resistant and adaptable bacteria and viruses have led to renewed interest in herbal medicines as viable alternatives to antibiotics. In contrast with conventional antibiotics, the problems with resistant bacteria are often avoided in the herbal approach because herbs usually act to strengthen the body rather than to directly attack the infecting organisms.
Contemporary Herbal Theories
Contemporary herbal theories can be divided roughly into two opposing philosophies. Purists believe in using the entire herbal plant. They assert that the synergistic effects of the whole plant increase the potency of the herb and thus bolster favorable results. Purists advocate wild crafting, or the gathering of herbs directing form non-agricultural locations. If scaling mountains and fording streams in search of needed plants proves too adventurous for the budding herbalist, purists also consider organic herbs to be acceptable alternatives.
Modernists, on the other hand, believe in extracting the active factors in herbs to concentrate their essential components. This allows for the production of a pure, measurable product that may have a longer storage potential. (Photo Courtesy of Durova, Wikimedia Commons)
The Patenting Controversy
The patenting of chemical synthetics has produced a series of economic windfalls for the pharmaceutical industry as revealed in annual billion dollar grosses. Since patents cannot be awarded for exclusive rights to plants, the incentive to cultivate herbs has been almost non-existent until very recently. Some herbal advocates have also accused the FDA of actively preventing the proliferation of herbal medicine by emphasizing and exaggerating the dangers of toxicity. The FDA’s attack on the importation of the herb stevia spotlights this central controversy surrounding the modern re-introduction of herbal medicine.
The Herbs We Eat
Ancient Traditions of Culinary Herbs
European women in the Middle Ages prided themselves on the extensiveness of their gardens. Many household could boast of gardens containing up to fifty different types of lettuces and salad greens. Among these avid gardeners, this astonishing variety was often rivaled by their cultivation medicinal herbs. The knowledge of these herbs was carefully passed down from mother to daughter. Not only were herbs essential for use in times of illness, but herbs and spices were also critical in the preservation of meats due to the lack of proper refrigeration. Spiced meat such as sausages became typical European fare.
References to herbs as food in the Bible and in the literature of other world cultures are prolific. The “spice of life” is indeed a universal phenomenon. Since the advent of cooked food, and possibly even before, a man has added flavor to his food and health benefits to his life through the culinary use of herbs. Every continent offers unique recipes as well as novel cooking and food preservation methods that involve herbs. Foods to mark special occasions and holidays are particularly appealing opportunities to explore the diverse types and uses of culinary herbs. (Photo courtesy of Sandstein, Wikimedia Commons)
The Growing Interest in Culinary Herbs
The current U.S. and world market for dried and fresh herbs in remarkable. Major herb companies such as Schilling and Watkins are now getting some competition from natural product companies that ship around the world such as Richter’s Herbs and Planet Herbs Botanicals. Herbs are also gaining new emphasis in culinary institutes across the country. Visiting selected companies and culinary institutes will be lively and delightful highlights of this fascinating program. And a quick look at the almost innumerable books, magazines, and TV shows dedicated to cooking and culinary herbs will demonstrate the vast interest in this ancient and modern art.
History of Culinary Herbs and Spices
Alexander the Great’s invasion of India in the 4th century BC changed the course of culinary history forever. Once the spices of India had been experienced, the traditional foods of Southern Europe were never to be the same again. Chief among the strenuously sought-after spices was peppercorns. When Attila the Hun held all of Rome hostage, he required 3,000 pounds of pepper as a tribute. And as every grade school child learns, the search for a water route to the spice markets of India was the impetus for the bold explorations of none other than Christopher Columbus. The discovery of new flavors had led to the discovery of a New World.
Not only were the exotic flavors of foreign herbs and spices akin to food for the gods, but their use also extended the life of the foods which they graced. The importance of the new herbs and spices can hardly be overstated. Indeed, pepper was traded, ounce for ounce, for gold. (Photo courtesy of Willscrlt, Wikimedia Commons)
The Medicinal Properties of Culinary Herbs and Spices
The admonition of Hippocrates to “Let food be your medicine,” rings truest when referring to the medicinal properties of culinary herbs. Not only does safer food lead to better health, but scientific findings also reveal that herbs aid virtually every system in the body. Carminatives relieve gas and bloating. Antiseptic herbs such as ginger protects against infection. Hormonally active herbs help the body to adjust to stress. In the oriental approach, the combinations of medicinal herbs with foods related to particular organs makes a complete system of “culinary healing.”
A Survey of Top Culinary Herbs
A list of the most popular exotic spices would have to include the following stand-bys: pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and turmeric. Used in dishes from casseroles to holiday pies, these spices can be found today in almost every household in the western world. Likewise, self-respecting cooks from all walks of life would be hard-pressed to produce fragrant, delicious, and life-enhancing soups, stews and sauces without the standard palette of European herbs: basil, mints, sage, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, and rosemary.
Creating Designer Foods with Herbs
The Modern Era of “Superfoods”
In today’s fast-paced world, specialized diets for various combinations of lifestyle, heredity, and good preferences have led to an era of what can only be termed “superfoods.” A sometimes confusing array of foods utilizing substitutes for specific “unwanted” ingredients has reached the shelves of both health food stores and major grocers across the country. The tantalizing, guilt-free offering include no fat, low fat, no cholesterol, low cholesterol, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free and vegetarian fare. Other foods are touted as meals in themselves: breakfast drinks, protein shakes, and countless varieties of vitamin and fiber-enriched “energy bars.”
The Advent of Nutraceuticals
Some foods go a step further. Not only do they “do no harm,” but they are actually designed to have direct medicinal effects. There are new margarines that lower cholesterol and numerous other foods that have been created to assist the immune system and add nutritional boosts to our diets. Lollipops with added vitamin C are now offered next to the bubblegum at checkout counters around the country.
The definition of a nutraceutical is broad: any food or food ingredient considered to provide medical or health benefits. Even mainstream food companies including Kellogg’s, Quaker, Nabisco, and Campbell’s are investigating their options in this new food line. In fact, Kellogg’s, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, has created a research facility dedicated exclusively to nutraceuticals. (Photo courtesy of Jon Aquino, Wikimedia Commons)
The inclusion of herbs in foods for nutritional and medicinal purposes is, please pardon the pun, quite natural. Kim Stewart, writing for Natural Foods Merchandiser™ believes that ginko-spiced cupcakes are not too far-fetched. How about a cookie fortified with St. John’s wort? Or a chicken soup that really cures the common cold?
Interestingly enough, such products have particular appeal to both children and older consumers who baulk at having to swallow a handful of capsules or supplements. Although many consumers faithfully ingest their daily supply of health aids in our pill-popping modern society, the advent of herbal nutraceutical food products may permit an increasing number to “have their cake and eat it, too.” (Photo courtesy of Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons)
Herbal Essences and Aromatherapy
A Scientific Look at the Amazing Sense of Smell
As any avid coffee drinker knows, the smell of a fresh brewed cup brings up a host of positive psychological associations. Likewise the smell of roses, lemons, pine trees and our favorite perfumes can transport us instantaneously to long-forgotten places and times. Why is it that smells have the ability to reach into such a deep, emotional level of our being?
Scientific researchers have investigated the immediate and powerful effects of aromas for decades. The consensus reached is that the limbic system, the most primitive portion of the brain, is directly involved in this ancient means of contacting and interpreting the environment. The sense of smell, once a primary survival mechanism, has become one of our brain’s most sophisticated avenues.
Historical Overview of the Perfume Industry
Egypt, land of elaborate burial tombs and the ancient art of embalming, is credited as the originator of the perfume industry. The Chinese also have a long tradition of moxibustion, or the burning of incense as part of acupuncture treatments. The Greeks and Romans adopted their art from the Egyptians and consequently added their improvements. Unending wars and invasions spread this knowledge to Spain, Italy and France. After the French had dominated perfumery for a few hundred years, fierce competition and the modern growth of the industry resulted in a marked proliferation of perfume companies. Now perfume producers are based of every continent of the globe, and small perfume companies have largely been sold to petrochemical and pharmaceutical giants.
The Growing Business of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy, or the therapeutic use of aromatic substances, is used to treat a wide range of health conditions. Lavender, rose and peppermint are common herbal constituents in aromatic oils. One of the most successful producers of herbs for aromatherapy is Young Living Essential Oils, founded by Gary Young, N.D. and based Idaho. The Young Living Herb Farm, which encourages both families and health practitioners to come for visits, grows the only source of organic herbs for essential oils in the United States.
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts prized for their exceptionally potent fragrances. One of the earliest modern proponents of the medicinal uses of essential oils was the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. Gattefosse’s attempts to isolate the active ingredients in essential oils were continued by another Frenchman, Dr. Jean Valet. Dr. Valet also investigated the use of essential oils for the alleviation of various psychiatric disorders. The results of his progressive research were published in 1964.
Essential oils are produced through the use of three main methods: steam distillation, expression and solvent extraction. They can be applied directly to the body, but may be strong enough to burn the skin. For this reason, as well as their comparative expense, they are usually diluted in high quality vegetable oils. Essential oils are also increasingly included in home and health care products such as sprays, candles, shampoos, and toothpaste.
The Psychological Connection
Exposure to the fragrances of essential oils allows them to be absorbed into the body in a variety of ways. Inhaled vapors reach the brain via receptors in the nose and mouth. This powerful form of herbal application triggers the release of specialized neurochemicals. Of all the five senses, smell is believed to have the strongest link to the subconscious. This physiological link may explain the uncanny connection between smell and memory encoding.
The association between the sense of smell and the “primitive brain” also comes boldly to the fore in the interplay between men and women. The sense of smell plays a far stronger role in sexual relationships than most people realize However, companies that produce perfume, cologne, after-shave, deodorants, and scented body products of all types are banking quite successfully on the central role of smell in attraction and arousal.
The Aromatherapy Revival
Aromatherapy is gaining ground quickly in the holistic health arena. An abundance of books, classes, seminars, and certification programs are available for consumers and health practitioners alike. The therapeutic methods of aromatherapists vary, but most combine the use of essential oils with healing modalities such as massage and other forms of bodywork, nutritional supplementation, or psychological counseling. This documentary will include interviews with aromatherapy practitioners to consider valuable anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of essential oils as a fascinating component of herbal medicine.
Potions of the Past--Medicines of the Future
A Look at the Modern Herbal Horizon
The worldwide economic impact of trade in herbs and spices beginning in antiquity continues today. Although there may not be any additional continents to discover while searching for new sources of herbal medicine, there are realms deep under the ocean and in remote forests and jungles that still hold promise additional sources for nature’s bounty of herbal remedies. (Photo courtesy of katorisi, Wikimedia Commons)
For example, the use of seaweeds for food and medicine is part of the herbal traditions of coast dwellers everywhere. A modern nomadic African people, the Topnaar, roast the stems of the seaweed Ecklonia maxima, mix it with petroleum jelly and rub the resulting salve into wounds and burns to speed healing. They maritime herb samphire, or sea fennel, contains enough vitamin C to act as a protection against scurvy.
For this reason, pickled sea fennel was once taken along on long journeys as a preventative measure. Sea fennel is regaining popularity today, mainly due to the recognition of its additional value as a digestive remedy. All seaweeds, including the better-known kelp, contain iodine and a significant supply of minerals. Mining the sea for vegetables may help to offset the increasing demineralization of land vegetables caused by intensive agricultural practices.
The Commercialization of Herbal Medicine
Commercial herb producers in China, Europe, and the United States have bright prospects for the future. Both traditional and recently popularized herbs have become big business. Regulations concerning the packaging and labeling of herbs are still in the formation process. This allows both consumers and producers time to rally support in order to keep herbal remedies readily available as viable alternatives to conventional medicine.
However, some controversies do exist within the modern herbal industry itself. Conflicting opinions about the effectiveness of commercialized herbs is a prime example. Ancient herbalists picked herbs according to strict timetables. Some herbs were picked based on the cycles of the moon. Others were harvested at particular times of the day. Other aspects of proper harvesting took humidity levels into account. (Photo xcourtesy of Daderot, Wikimedia Commons)
Certainly most herbalists today agree that picking herbs in the correct season for peak performance is essential. Drying and handling procedures are also critical. Can the key aspects of proper harvesting, preparation, and storage of herbs necessary to retain effective potency levels be assured during mass production and processing procedures? Finding the balance between delicate and time-consuming methods and efficient but possibly destructive approaches is one of the major challenges facing the herbal medicine industry today.
Herbal Mythology Revisited
Ancient myths describing the magic of herbs are innumerable. In this final documentary, we will again feature selected popular herbs and touch upon the engaging lore surrounding their origins and reputed powers. We will also conclude with highlights from the most recent scientific research into the properties of these and other marvelous and versatile medicinal herbs.
Mankind’s ongoing quest for longevity and improved quality of life has led to some of his greatest achievements and adventures. Likewise, the exciting journeys and captivating investigation of Nature’s Pharmacy reveal botanical secrets of the past that offer hope for miracles in the future.
©2009 Living Arts Enterprises, LLC
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