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In general use, herbs are any plants "with leaves, seeds, or flowers
used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume" or parts of "such a
plant as used in cooking". (In botanical use, the term "herb" is
employed differently, for any non-woody flowering plant, regardless
of its flavor, scent or other properties, and thus includes only
grass-like plants and forbs.)
Herbs have a variety of uses including culinary, medicinal, and in
some cases spiritual usage. General usage differs between culinary
herbs and medicinal herbs. In medicinal or spiritual use any of the
parts of the plant might be considered "herbs", including leaves,
roots, flowers, seeds, resin, root bark, inner bark (and cambium),
berries and sometimes the pericarp or other portions of the plant.
Culinary use of the term "herb" typically distinguishes between herbs,
from the leafy green parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), and
spices, from other parts of the plant (usually dried), including seeds,
berries, bark, root and fruit.
Culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that, like spices,
they are used in small amounts and provide flavor rather than substance
Many culinary herbs are perennials such as thyme or lavender, while
others are biennials such as parsley or annuals like basil. Some
perennial herbs are shrubs (such as rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis),
or trees (such as bay laurel, Laurus nobilis) – this contrasts with
botanical herbs, which by definition cannot be woody plants. Some plants
are used as both an herb and a spice, such as dill weed and dill seed or
coriander leaves and seeds. Also, there are some herbs such as those in
the mint family that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Plants contain phytochemicals that have effects on the body.
There may be some effects when consumed in the small levels that typify
culinary "spicing", and some herbs are toxic in larger quantities.
However, large amounts of these herbs may lead to toxic overload that
may involve complications, some of a serious nature, and should be used
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A herbal is "a collection of descriptions of plants put together
for medicinal purposes." Expressed more elaborately — it is a
book containing the names and descriptions of plants, usually with
information on their virtues (properties) — and in particular
their medicinal, tonic, culinary, toxic, hallucinatory, aromatic,
or magical powers, and the legends associated with them. A herbal
may also classify the plants it describes, may give recipes for
herbal extracts, tinctures, or potions, and sometimes include mineral
and animal medicaments in addition to those obtained from plants.
Herbals were often illustrated to assist plant identification.
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Herbalism is a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based
on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as
botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology,
herblore, and phytotherapy. 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 medicines
derived from natural sources.
Traditional use of medicines is recognized as a way to learn about potential
future medicines. In 2001, researchers identified 122 compounds used in
mainstream medicine which were derived from "ethnomedical" plant sources; 80%
of these compounds were used in the same or related manner as the traditional
Plants synthesize a bewildering variety of phytochemicals but most are
derivatives of a few biochemical motifs.
Alkaloids contain a ring with nitrogen. Many alkaloids have dramatic effects
on the central nervous system. Caffeine is an alkaloid that provides a mild
lift but the alkaloids in datura cause severe intoxication and even death.
polyphenol, also known as phenolics, contain phenol rings. The anthocyanins
that give grapes their purple color, the isoflavones, the phytoestrogens from
soy and the tannins that give tea its astringency are phenolics.
Terpenoids are built up from terpene building blocks. Each terpene consists of
two paired isoprenes. The names monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes and
triterpenes are based on the number of isoprene units. The fragrance of rose
and lavender is due to monoterpenes. The carotenoids produce the reds, yellows
and oranges of pumpkin, corn and tomatoes.
Glycosides consist of a glucose moiety attached to an aglycone. The aglycone
is a molecule that is bioactive in its free form but inert until the glycoside
bond is broken by water or enzymes. This mechanism allows the plant to defer
the availability of the molecule to an appropriate time, similar to a safety
lock on a gun. An example is the cyanoglycosides in cherry pits that release
toxins only when bitten by a herbivore.
Four approaches to the use of plants as medicine include:
1. The magical/shamanic
Almost all non-modern societies recognise this kind of use. The practitioner
is regarded as endowed with gifts or powers that allow him/her to use herbs
in a way that is hidden from the average person, and the herbs are said to
affect the spirit or soul of the person.
2. The energetic
This approach includes the major systems of TCM, Ayurveda, and Unani. Herbs
are regarded as having actions in terms of their energies and affecting the
energies of the body. The practitioner may have extensive training, and
ideally be sensitive to energy, but need not have supernatural powers.
3. The functional dynamic
This approach was used by early physiomedical practitioners, whose doctrine
forms the basis of contemporary practice in the UK. Herbs have a functional
action, which is not necessarily linked to a physical compound, although
often to a physiological function, but there is no explicit recourse to
concepts involving energy.
4. The chemical
Modern practitioners - called Phytotherapists - attempt to explain herb actions
in terms of their chemical constituents. It is generally assumed that the specific
combination of secondary metabolites in the plant are responsible for the activity
claimed or demonstrated, a concept called synergy.
Most modern herbalists concede that pharmaceuticals are more effective in emergency
situations where time is of the essence. An example would be where a patient had an
acute heart attack that posed imminent danger. However they claim that over the long
term herbs can help the patient resist disease, and that in addition, they provide
nutritional and immunological support that pharmaceuticals lack. They view their goal
as prevention as well as cure.
Routes of administration
The exact composition of a herbal product is influenced by the method of extraction.
A tisane will be rich in polar components because water is a polar solvent. Oil on
the other hand is a non-polar solvent and it will absorb non-polar compounds. Alcohol
lies somewhere in between. There are many forms in which herbs can be administered,
Alcoholic extracts of herbs such as Echinacea extract. Usually obtained
by combining 100% pure ethanol (or a mixture of 100% ethanol with water)
with the herb. A completed tincture has a ethanol percentage of at least
25% (sometimes up to 90%). The term tincture is sometimes applied to
preparations using other solvents than ethanol.
Herbal wine and elixirs
These are alcoholic extract of herbs; usually with an ethanol percentage
of 12-38% Herbal wine is a maceration of herbs in wine, while an elixir
is a maceration of herbs in spirits (e.g., vodka, grappa, etc.)
Hot water extracts of herb, such as chamomile.
Long-term boiled extract of usually roots or bark.
Cold infusion of plants with high mucilage-content as sage, thyme, etc.
Plants are chopped and added to cold water. They are then left to stand
for 7 to 12 hours (depending on herb used). For most macerates 10 hours
Prepared at the same way as tinctures, except using a solution of acetic
acid as the solvent.
Application of essential oil extracts, usually diluted in a carrier oil
(many essential oils can burn the skin or are simply too high dose used
straight – diluting in olive oil or another food grade oil such as almond
oil can allow these to be used safely as a topical).
Salves, oils, balms, creams and lotions - Most topical applications are
oil extractions of herbs. Taking a food grade oil and soaking herbs in
it for anywhere from weeks to months allows certain phytochemicals to be
extracted into the oil. This oil can then be made into salves, creams,
lotions, or simply used as an oil for topical application. Any massage
oils, antibacterial salves and wound healing compounds are made this way.
Poultices and compresses
One can also make a poultice or compress using whole herb (or the appropriate
part of the plant) usually crushed or dried and re-hydrated with a small amount
of water and then applied directly in a bandage, cloth or just as is.
Whole herb consumption
This can occur in either dried form (herbal powder), or fresh juice,
(fresh leaves and other plant parts).
Extracts of herbs made with syrup or honey. Sixty five parts of sugar
are mixed with 35 parts of water and herb. The whole is then boiled and
macerated for three weeks.
Include liquid extracts, dry extracts and nebulisates. Liquid extracts are
liquids with a lower ethanol percentage than tinctures. They can (and are
usually) made by vacuum distilling tinctures. Dry extracts are extracts of
plant material which are evaporated into a dry mass. They can then be
further refined to a capsule or tablet. A nebulisate is a dry extract
created by freeze-drying.
Inhalation as in aromatherapy can be used as a mood changing treatment to
fight a sinus infection or cough, or to cleanse the skin on a deeper level
(steam rather than direct inhalation here)
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