Have you ever chewed on a piece of ginger to curb your nausea? Or sprinkled ground cinnamon in your oatmeal to help lower blood sugar? If the answer is yes, you are taking part in a tradition that stretches deep into our past.
One of China’s first books on healing was the Pen Ts’ao, written around 4,500 years ago, detailing the therapeutic properties of 365 medicinal plants. Many of the healing herbs outlined in the book are still in use today, including ephedra, yellow gentian, ginseng, and, yes, ginger and cinnamon.
For all of human history, people have explored their natural environments and found plants whose component parts — leaves, flowers, bark, stems, roots, seeds — bolstered health and even cured ailments.
Herbal remedies developed in an intensely regional fashion, as shamans and healers responded to the local climate and the array of plants growing there. People and their plants basically coevolved, and given that history, some herbalists still favor a localized approach to healing with plants.
Herbal traditions remain strong. An estimated 90 percent of Africans, 40 percent of Chinese, and 70 percent of the population in India rely on herbal remedies.
In Germany, 70 percent of doctors prescribe plant-based medicines. There, “herbal medicines are completely accepted as drugs,” says Joerg Gruenwald, PhD, founder of Analyze & Realize AG, a German firm specializing in natural ingredients. “These treatments are part of the normal training of physicians and in pharmacology, too.”
As people migrated, herbal traditions spread. Many of the herbs that were once highly specific to a region and a population are now available to the rest of the world as teas, extracts, and supplements — and even as growing plants — offering us new opportunities for herbal treatment. Now, even in the United States, 38 percent of adults use some form of botanical medicine.