HISTORICAL MOMENTS IN HERBALISM
Recently, reading the history of herbalism / medicine it seems that old issues and new issues are the same. For medicine in the West it all started with Hippocrates, who long ago set a standard for the way we think about health. A balance of four bodily humors—choler (air?), bile, phlegm, and blood was a benchmark for good health. Essentially, this was envisioned to apply to all aspects of life— body, mind, and emotions. His model was quite holistic. For centuries others who followed took up this banner totally or in part. The tools of this medical model came to include diet, moderation in lifestyle, hygiene, whole herbs, and even astrology. One follower, named Galen, (2nd century AD) made the model quite rigorous and systematic with the categorization of plants according to their action on the humors. The main point is that this so-called medieval medicine looked to nature for prevention and cure. The doctor’s role was secondary to healing done by nature (vis medicatrix naturae) promoted by simple’s ( single herb) and specifics (having affinity towards a certain organ or disease). Under Arab influence and later, Paracelsus particularly, this model was expanded to include minerals and metals such as mercury, sulfur, and antimony. The distinction between 2nd century medicine and 10th century medicine was the introduction of the notion that nature’s way of healing could be improved upon—accelerated. If disease was born of stagnation or excess of the humors then anything that moved them was good. However, with this innovation there was never a clear perception that the client might be worse off from the toxic side effects of the mercury and caustic irritants such as antimony, all of which promoted marked evidence of their ability to move the humors (acting as diuretics, emetics, purgatives, and sudorifics). Indeed, when there was an awareness of clear and dangerous side effects they were dismissed as necessary and even evidence of healing effects of the drugs. While many died from the poisoning and other side effects it was believed (or at least hoped) that many more were saved--that the chemical/mineral medicines were the only hope for cure, anyway. Thus it was that the alchemy of the 10th century came to be looked upon as an improvement. And by the 18th century the idea of natural healing was almost heretical as plants and herbs played a very small role. While these chemical drugs never proved themselves during the most severe challenges of the Middle Ages—infectious diseases as the black death, malaria, cholera, and syphilitic epidemics, or other kinds of diseases such as scurvy—their detractors were effete to gainsay them. This was true in the West until the 19th century in Germany, when Samuel Hahnemann proposed and demonstrated the efficacy of the principle--likes cure (Similis similibus curentur)—also called homeopathy. He called this axiom the “law of natural cure.” About the same time in the US the “Heroic Medicine” (chemistry based drugs), as it was called, experienced considerable challenge from the Thomsonians and the “Eclectics.” While both held that chemical medicines were poisonous and their use was, hence, immoral, the former maintained sweating, purging, and emesis were the treatments of choice for nearly any disease. The Eclectics disagreed with both the Thomsonians and the Regulars (Heroics) maintaining that nature’s herbs and vegetables, alone, held the power to unlock natural healing. Plants had specific actions and were by experience proven effective treatment for given disease(s)—one needed only to discover the power within the particular plant.
Even when in 1624 William Harvey discovered that blood circulated through the body this did not change the bloodletting practices of medical doctors. This had no impact at all on the theory of disease or treatment either. Thus our point has been to describe how down through the ages there has been politically and medically a clear disdain for science, a blind, parochial faith in theory at the cost of health and life. Doctrine ruled no matter what the experience to the contrary. During the middle of the 19th century, while the medical establishment resisted change mightily, the public and a growing number of defectors and professional dissenters clamored for a new look at doctoring practices. And it was clear in the face of the unending steam of incurable infectious diseases that the general populace was unable to cope with the responsibility of its own health. For centuries doctors had demanded this responsibility, probably mainly for economic reasons.
Just when desperation was at a peak allopathic practices were to gain a new champion--the discovery of penicillin. A new doctrine known today as the germ and vector theory of disease began to emerge and more and more the notion of one disease—one cause came into acceptance. When penicillin showed promise with certain infectious diseases other drugs came along to combat other diseases such as malaria, cholera, typhoid fever, etc. The new drugs rather served to shift the responsibility for health away from the individual. In an economic climate of a booming industrial revolution people could afford to take this pill or that liquid no matter what the indiscretion. The public interest in herbal remedies again subsided because it was as if the new chemistry could indeed conquer all.
The character of perception in the public and in the medical profession seemed to vacillate. When the frustration with the ineptitude of allopathy reached a critical point people questioned it. Then a magic bullet would come along and restore faith in the system. The healing taking place with the natural remedies was silent and slow even when effective but the results of allopathic drugs were dramatic. People never knew when to trust the doctor or the local herb lady. Neither government nor medical profession supported herbalism. The politicians just wanted to maintain the status quo in the medical field. The doctors, of course, were caught in the middle—they had their protocols, which they were absolutely required to adhere to even when completely ineffective, and yet they always demanded the exclusive right of diagnosing and treating the health of the people.
Ironically, 150 years later it seems we have come full circle with the identical issues still lively and fully as emotionally laden. People are again questioning the drugs and the doctors. Cancer rates now are now set at 1 person in three will experience it directly while 50 years ago the rate was four times less. Toxicity is associated with chronic diseases such as arthritis and MS and autoimmune dysfunction (AIDS). Iatrogenic disease—sickness attributed to the medicine your doctor has been prescribing for you--according to New England Journal of Medicine, accounts for 38% of hospital admissions and is linked to all of the above. The New England Journal of Medicine reported almost a decade ago that millions of people now are seeing practitioners outside of allopathy—without telling their primary physician. Where once the attention was on external toxicity now the concern is with internal toxicity. The quality of perception regarding cause of disease is becoming clearer but the dogmatism surrounding treatment protocols is intransigent.
Even at the Federal Government level—the FDA has tried to regulate herbs and food supplements. It has generated new guidelines around which drugs and herbs may be sold and prescribed. Only valid research showing an herb to be safe and effective assures that herb on the list of permissible to sell and use (called GRAS for “generally recognized as safe”). But it has ignored almost the entire clinical history of experience with herbs in its decisions of what is to be included in GRAS. There is no incentive for this research, as the herb can not be patented. This means that huge costs of proving safety and effectiveness are difficult to recoup.
The German Government, by contrast, took the realistic position that because herbs have demonstrated they can help cure disease they should play a role in the health care system. It established a Commission to ferret out the good from the bad. Here clinical experience was taken into consideration and complemented laboratory analysis findings. These results were reported in what has been called the “Commission E Findings.” An important precedent set by the German Government made it a requirement of medical doctors to recommend alternative therapies when primary (allopathic) protocols were ineffective. Thus, naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, massage, nutrition therapy, and others became part of the healthcare paradigm. But one of the dilemmas presented by this report was that European herbs and American herbs are often different, making it useless for American bureaucrats. Ironically, the FDA chose to ignore all of the Commission E data, apparently wanting to maintain a sense of its own self-importance—we know what we want to know and that’s all that is important. One has to ask if there is real science in medicine and if regulators and doctors really want to know the truth. The spirit of science is in the quest for understanding of our experiences not for the justification of our beliefs.
In the above we have tried to give some insight to the importance of our awareness—our ability to perceive things as they really are. It seems that there is an interaction of cause and effect where our ability to perceive can be clouded by our beliefs, our desires and even our health. Clouded by these our choices become detrimental to our health and the cause of further disease. This is the central etiological factor according to Ayurveda. When we fail to perceive what is really going on mistakes result and these cause more mischief, pain, suffering, even death. When we think we can change Nature or that we know better than it then we will suffer too. Of course, if those we trust to lead us behave from this debilitated state then society as a whole suffers. It seems that this is indeed happening all over the world. The aim of Ayurveda is to cure disease, to promote and to maintain the health of society. It is the love of and pursuit of truth which is central to this aim.
1. Barbara Griggs, Green Pharmacy, The Viking Press, NY, NY, 1981
2. Varro E. Tyler, Herbs of Choice, Pharmaceuticals Products Press, NY, NY, 1994
(C) Copyright 1999 Michael Dick All Rights Reserved www.ayurveda-florida.com