What is Herbalism?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 April 2018
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Herbalism, also referred to as medical herbalism or botanical medicine, is one of the earliest systems of medicine known to exist. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, herbalism has always been and is still the most widely practiced healing modality in the world. This is evidenced by the fact that many medical texts refer to herbalism as folk medicine, indicating that it is a branch of medicine studied and practiced by indigenous peoples of numerous cultures spanning history and the globe. It is also demonstrated in modern pharmacology since nearly half of all pharmaceutical drugs in use today are derived from botanical materials.

However, there are a few common concepts shared by most herbalists. The most notable is that the pharmacological activity obtained from the whole plant is more valuable than that expressed by any individual constituent extracted from its parts. Further, if any constituent is more or less powerful than the whole, the other components present will balance the scale, so to speak. This sense of botanical synergy is the essential difference between herbalism and conventional medicine, since the latter typically seeks to synthesize a pharmaceutical drug from an isolated plant extract. Of course, herbalists also reject the idea that this synergy can be replicated in a laboratory.


Herbs and plants owe their medicinal properties to a wide variety of natural compounds, which are often referred to as phytochemicals and bioflavonoids. The most basic and pharmacologically active are terpenoids, glycosides, phenols, and alkaloids. Medicines made from herbs are prepared in a variety of ways. They maybe ground whole into a powder and encapsulated, prepared as an infusion or tea, made into a decoction — steeped roots and bark, or made into a tincture by alcohol extraction. In addition, herbal remedies are also administered as ointments and poultices.


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