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History of Chinese Herbal Medicine


Plants have been used as medicines before recorded history and their medicinal use is common to all cultures and peoples of the world. The Chinese Shen Nong Ben Cao (Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica) was attributed to the mythical Chinese emperor, Shen Nong, reputedly a skilled herbalist who, legend says, lived some three thousand years BCE. In reality, this ancient medical text dates back to the first century BCE. The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, written circa 1550 BCE contains references to more than 700 herbal remedies. The Charaka Samhita is the oldest extant treatise on Ayurveda thought to have been compiled in the 1st century CE. The original lost text was written several centuries earlier around 600 BCE.

Over the centuries, the medicinal use of herbal medicines was tried and tested empirically and then recorded in many famous herbals - such as those of the English herbalists Gerard and Culpeper as well as those of India, China and Tibet - published through the centuries. Much of this priceless knowledge is now disregarded by modern medicine; nowadays plants are generally only valued by the pharmaceutical industry for their perceived ‘actives’ and the remaining ‘inert’ constituents are discarded. In this way, drug companies isolate and extract an active principal which can be purified and patented. The discovery and isolation of active plant compounds that gave birth to modern drug discovery and development only began in the 19th century. Despite the current preoccupation with synthetic chemistry as a vehicle to discover and manufacture drugs, the contribution of plants to disease treatment and prevention is still vast. At the start of 21st century, 11% of the 252 drugs considered as basic and essential by the WHO were exclusively of flowering plant origin.[4] Researchers noted that 80% of 122 plant derived drugs had a traditional medicine use identical or related to the current use by the pharmaceutical sector of the active elements of the plant.[5] . Some 120 well-known licensed medicines were originally derived from plant sources - e.g. aspirin from willow, steroids from the Mexican yam, digoxin from foxglove, theophylline from tea, morphine from the opium poppy etc.[6] Herbalists choose to use whole plant medicines which they see as a more natural way to secure good health and treat disease.
Modern scientific research confirms a wide spectrum of these traditional herbal uses e.g. St John’s wort for depression, hawthorn for circulatory disorders and valerian to aid sleep. Traditional use is now accepted as the basis of herbal registration for over-the-counter herbal products throughout Europe via the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (2004/24/EC).



[1] Murugaiyah V, Mattson MP. Neurohormetic phytochemicals: An evolutionary-bioenergetic perspective. Neurochem Int. 2015 Oct;89:271-80.
[2] Howes MJ, Simmonds MS. The role of phytochemicals as micronutrients in health and disease. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014 Nov;17(6):558-66.
[3] Whalen KA, McCullough ML, Flanders WD, Hartman TJ, Judd S, Bostick RM. Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Balance in Adults. J Nutr. 2016 Jun;146(6):1217-26.
[4] Veeresham C. Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. J Adv Pharm Technol Res. 2012 Oct;3(4):200-1.
[5] Fabricant D S, Farnsworth N R. The value of plants used in traditional medicine for drug discovery.Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Mar; 109(Suppl 1): 69–75.
[6] Taylor L. Plant-based drugs and medicines. http://www.rain-tree.com/plantdrugs.htm#.V4KAkxLJlHo. Accessed 10/7/16.
[7] Over-the-counter herbal products are widely available from health food shops, pharmacies, supermarkets and from some online suppliers. To ensure that the product has strict quality controls in place, though, look for a registration number on the pack (either ‘THR” (Traditional Herbal Registration) or “PL” (Product License) followed by a series of numbers/letters. The British Herbal Medicine Association has members whose products meet the required quality standards and these products will contain clear, officially approved information on their safe use. See www.bhma.info for more details.

Kind acknowlegement to our friends at www.herbalist.org.uk


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