Herbal medicine has its origins in ancient cultures including those of the Egyptians, American Indians and Chinese. It involves the medicinal use of plants to treat disease and enhance general health and wellbeing.
There are over 750,000 plants on earth. Relatively speaking, only a very few of the healing herbs have been studied scientifically. And because modern pharmacology looks for one active ingredient and seeks to isolate it to the exclusion of all the others, most of the research that is done on plants continues to focus on identifying and isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of whole plants.
Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness. From a "scientific" perspective, many herbal treatments are considered experimental. The reality is, however, that herbal medicine has a long and respected history. Many familiar medications of the twentieth century were developed from ancient healing traditions that treated health problems with specific plants. Today, science has isolated the medicinal properties of a large number of botanicals, and their healing components have been extracted and analyzed. Many plant components are now synthesized in large laboratories for use in pharmaceutical preparations. For example, vincristine (an antitumor drug), digitalis (a heart regulator), and ephedrine (a bronchodilator used to decrease respiratory congestion) were all originally discovered through research on plants.
Traditional Medicine can also have impact on infectious diseases. For example, the Chinese herbal remedy Artemisia annua, used in China for almost 2000 years has been found to be effective against resistant malaria and could create a breakthrough in preventing almost one million deaths annually, most of them children, from severe malaria.
In South Africa, the Medical Research Council is conducting studies on the efficacy of the plant Sutherlandia Microphylla in treating AIDS patients. Traditionally used as a tonic, this plant may increase energy, appetite and body mass in people living with HIV.
The efficacy of many medicinal plants has been validated by scientists abroad, from Europe to the Orient. Thanks to modern technology, science can now identify some of the specific properties and interactions of botanical constituents. With this scientific documentation, we now know why certain herbs are effective against certain conditions. Almost all of the current research validating herbal medicine has been done in Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Russia. And for the most part, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for licensing all new drugs (or any substances for which medicinal properties are claimed) for use in the United States, does not recognize or accept findings from across the sea. Doctors and government agencies want to see American scientific studies before recognizing the effectiveness of a plant as medicine. Yet even though substantial research is being done in other countries, drug companies and laboratories in the United States so far have not chosen to put much money or resources into botanical research. The result is that herbal medicine does not have the same place of importance or level of acceptance in this country as it does in other countries
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In recent years, interest in herbal medicine has skyrocketed, leading to a greater scientific interest in the medicinal use of plants. Many international studies have shown that plants are capable of treating disease and improving health, often without any significant side effects.