History of Herbal Medicines

December 24, 2019, 9:37 291

Phyto-medicine, or “Herbal medicine” refers to the practice of using herbal material for medicinal purposes. Herbal medicine has a long tradition of use outside of conventional medicine. Many herbal medicines have evolved through traditional use within a specific cultural context. For some cultures, the traditional use is documented in written texts, and for others, the traditional knowledge and its use have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. Several herbal drugs have yielded important modern therapeutic agents e.g., aspirin (Salix spp L.), taxol (Taxus baccata L.), and the Vinca alkaloids (Catharanthus roseus (L.) G.Don). Herbal medicines also play a significant and increasingly important role in global healthcare, where they are finding new and expanding markets as health foods and preventative medicines. The sources of the supply of medicinal plants are wild-harvested and cultivated materials, and there are increasing demands for a sustainable supply of quality material. The worldwide annual market for herbal products approaches the US $60 billion. The global “functional food” and dietary supplement markets are growing at a significant pace and have requirements for increasing quantities of high-quality herbal materials. 

Modern medicine makes use of many plant-derived compounds as the basis for evidence-based pharmaceutical drugs. Although herbalism may apply modern standards of effectiveness testing to herbs and medicines derived from natural sources, few high-quality clinical trials and standards for purity or dosage exist. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.


Over the past 100 years, the development and mass production of chemically synthesized drugs have revolutionized health care in most parts of the word. However, large sections of the population in developing countries still rely on traditional practitioners and herbal medicines for their primary care. In Africa, up to 90% and in India 70% of the population depend on traditional medicine to help meet their health care needs. In China, traditional medicine accounts for around 40% of all health care delivered and more than 90% of general hospitals in China have units for traditional medicine (WHO 2005). However, the use of traditional medicine is not limited to developing countries, and during the past two decades, public interest in natural therapies has increased greatly in industrialized countries, with expanding use of ethnobotanicals. In the United States, in 2007, about 38% of adults and 12% of children were using some form of traditional medicine. According to a survey by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, herbal therapy or the usage of natural products other than vitamins and minerals was the most commonly used alternative medicine (18.9%) when all use of prayer was excluded. A survey conducted in Hong Kong in 2003 reported that 40% of the subjects surveyed showed marked faith in TCM compared with Western medicine. In a survey of 21,923 adults in the United States, 12.8% took at least one herbal supplement and in another survey, 42% of respondents used dietary or nutritional supplements, with multivitamins and minerals most commonly used, followed by saw palmetto, flax, garlic, and Ginkgo, at the time of the interview.

Plants, herbs, and ethnobotanicals have been used since the early days of humankind and are still used throughout the world for health promotion and treatment of disease. Plants and natural sources form the basis of today’s modern medicine and contribute largely to the commercial drug preparations manufactured today. About 25% of drugs prescribed worldwide are derived from plants. Still, herbs, rather than drugs, are often used in health care. For some, herbal medicine is their preferred method of treatment. For others, herbs are used as an adjunct therapy to conventional pharmaceuticals. However, in many developing societies, the traditional medicine of which herbal medicine is a core part is the only system of health care available or affordable. 





1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92773/

2. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-43806-1_2

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbal_medicine


By Garibli A.