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The history of Herbal medicine

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The use of herbals as medicine dates back to a time of ancient civilizations, and is as old as medicine itself. The use of plants as medicine was first depicted in France in the Lascaux caves. These depictions date back to the years 13,000 to 25,000 BC. Much of the herbal knowledge developed in ancient cultures was passed down generations upon generations, through the stories and teachings of shamans, healers, and medicine men and women. 


In Eastern medicine, many of the earliest written forms for the use of herbs as medicine were found in Chinese and Egyptian texts. The Shen Nung Pen Tsao was recorded in 2800 BC and contains information on over 350 herbs, including the commonly known herb Ephedra. Another document, The Edwin Smith Papyrus, was found in Egypt, and is dated back to 1700 BC. It is thought to have originated from a manuscript written by Imhotep in 3000 BC. 

Switching over to the history of Western herbal medicine, the Historia Plantarum is likely the first botanical text found in ancient Greece, dating back to the 4th century BC. Other well-known documentation comes from Ibn Sina (980-1037), and Galen (131-200). Paracelsus (1493-1542) is another well-known key player in the history of botanical and homeopathic medicine in the Western world.  

Although his views were years beyond his time, many of his theories later formed what could be considered today as the foundations of modern allopathic science and medicine. His doctrines provided much basis and influence into the development of Western herbalism and flower essence therapy. He described a quality called the “archeus,” which is said to be a dynamic source of intelligence giving rise to the healing and restorative powers of plants and herbs. 

He also developed the theory Similia similibus curantur, which means like-cures-like in herbal medicine. This theory is integral in homeopathic medicine, but also related to his work and knowledge of botanical medicine. Through his work we can see a blending of the holistic and intuitive nature behind alternative therapies, and the use of herbals for healing.

Aboriginal cultures also played a vital role in the development of Western botanical medicine. Their culture and spiritual ceremonies lead to many discoveries and uncovered truths about the healing properties of plants, similar to the formation of Ayurveda.

In general, herbal medicine uses all parts of a plant such as the roots, berries, leaves, stems, bark, or flowering body, to treat disease and disharmonies in the body. Sometimes, herbs are used in combinations and can have synergistic effects to amplify the healing abilities. Herbal medicine can be similar and has definite overlap with phytotherapy. The distinction with phytotherapy is that there is more of an emphasis on modern day evidence-based dosing and use, than there is in the practice botanical medicine. 

Topics: Botanical Medicine

Doctor Allison Galan

Written by Doctor Allison Galan

Dr. Allison Galan is a licensed ND practicing in Calgary. She has a passion for empowering her patients to be their own catalyst for change, while supporting them in their health and wellness goals. She believes wholeheartedly in the mind-body connection, which is an integral component of her practice. Allison graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, and also holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. She is a member in good standing in the CNDA and the CAND.