Interest in herbal medicine may seem like a new phenomenon, but cultures all around the world across many thousands of years have understood how much plants do for human beings. Not only do plants absorb toxins from the air, they season our food and protect our bodies with shelter, fuel, and clothing to keep us warm. 80 percent of the world relies on plants as their primary source of primary healthcare needs, according to the World Health Organization. 

So how do they work? Scientists have much left to discover about the mechanisms of medicinal plants healing. It was only in 2018 that Swedish researchers showed how plants in crowded environments secrete chemicals that allow their neighbors to detect their presence and modify growth behavior accordingly. Recent books like Overstory and The Hidden Life of Trees have popularized revelations about plant behavior, but the silent signaling of these oldest living organisms has been going on long before we started learning how to listen.  

Trees, in a sense, are big herbs. The phrase “medicinal herbs” simply means a plant used for healing. The parts of the plants used for medicine may be their leaves, flowers, roots, seeds or bark. Though the thousands of phytochemical components or constituents in a particular medicinal herb may not be visible to the eye, centuries of observed used — from the Bible to the battlefield — have taught people their powerful value as antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antibiotic allies.

In fact, many western drugs are derived from herbs. Aspirin comes from willow bark. The heart medicine digitalis comes from foxglove and codeine comes from poppies. The cancer remedy Taxol is derived from pacific yew trees and chinchona bark was used to make quinine. Pharmaceutical companies extracted and isolated one or two active components from these plants, but herbal medicine enables us to tap into and benefit from the thousands of others that exist within a single plant. 

Just because there isn’t money to be made by industry in identifying the thousands of components contained in a single plant, doesn’t mean we aren’t huge beneficiaries of their synergistic largess. The vast majority of whole herbs are seen to be safer than pharmaceuticals, which carry risks of overuse. Perhaps the biggest thing a consumer needs to look out for when utilizing herbal supplements is to make sure that they were not sprayed with pesticides. Ensure that your herbs come from organic, sustainably wildcrafted, or ecologically cultivated sources. 

It’s fun to experiment with growing your own in a garden or on your windowsill. If you’re curious about dipping into herbal remedies at home, start with culinary herbs like rosemary, mint, or thyme. Why not send us your favorite recipe for integrating healing herbs into mealtime. We may feature you here on THE MAB or on our Instagram