Herbal medicine (or "herbalism") is the study and use of medicinal properties of plants. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts. Pharmacognosy is the study of all medicines that are derived from natural sources.
Plants have the ability to synthesize a wide variety of chemical compounds that are used to perform important biological functions, and to defend against attack from predators such as insects, fungi and herbivorous mammals. Many of these phytochemicals have beneficial effects on long-term health when consumed by humans, and can be used to effectively treat human diseases. At least 12,000 such compounds have been isolated so far; a number estimated to be less than 10% of the total. Chemical compounds in plants mediate their effects on the human body through processes identical to those already well understood for the chemical compounds in conventional drugs; thus herbal medicines do not differ greatly from conventional drugs in terms of how they work. This enables herbal medicines to be as effective as conventional medicines, but also gives them the same potential to cause harmful side effects.
The use of plants as medicines predates written human history. Ethnobotany (the study of traditional human uses of plants) is recognized as an effective way to discover future medicines. In 2001, researchers identified 122 compounds used in modern medicine which were derived from "ethnomedical" plant sources; 80% of these have had an ethnomedical use identical or related to the current use of the active elements of the plant. Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including aspirin, digitalis, quinine, and opium.
The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialized societies, and is often more affordable than purchasing expensive modern pharmaceuticals. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the population of some Asian and African countries presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Studies in the United States and Europe have shown that their use is less common in clinical settings, but has become increasingly more in recent years as scientific evidence about the effectiveness of herbal medicine has become more widely available.
Read more about Botanicals: History, Modern Herbal Medicine, Traditional Herbal Medicine Systems, Herbal Philosophy and Spiritual Practices, Uses of Herbal Medicines By Animals, Extinction of Medicinal Plant Species
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