Phytotherapy or herbal medicine is the study of medicinal plants and their use as medicines. Due to its worldwide distribution, it can be found in the most diverse cultural circles. Moreover, phytotherapy is one of the oldest natural healing methods.
A secondary branch of phytotherapy is pharmacognosy. It investigates the chemical composition and the active ingredients of the individual medicinal plants. The ingredients are partially broken down into their constituents, which can have different healing effects. It should be noted here that orthodox medicine also draws on phytotherapy and its active ingredients in the production of its preparations.
The Principle of Phytotherapy
The principle of phytotherapy is to extract the individual active ingredients of medicinal plants from the plants and make them available as a medicine. Essentially, the active substances can be divided into the following classes:
- Essential oils
- Trace elements
Many medicinal plants have been investigated for their effectiveness, thus putting phytotherapy on a scientific basis. It is also recommended by doctors of orthodox medicine as a complementary therapy for minor chronic diseases as well as for functional and psychosomatic disorders.
The forms of administration of phytotherapy are very diverse. The spectrum includes tea preparations, juices, dragées, tinctures and some more. This is also where its points of contact with homeopathy become apparent. Inhalations as well as baths and compresses are the external areas of application.
Phytotherapy With a High Quality Standard
Medicinal herbs bought at the pharmacy are always of high quality. They must be listed in the German Pharmacopoeia (DAB) and meet its requirements. These medicinal plants are either collected from suitable locations or grown purely organically. The teas offered in supermarkets do not meet this specification, as only food law applies to them. It is also not excluded that they are contaminated with environmental toxins (residues from pesticides).
Only those with sufficient botanical knowledge can collect medicinal herbs and roots themselves. There is always a risk of confusion with poisonous plants. Collecting endangered plant species and digging up roots should be avoided.
A Short Excursion into the History of Phytotherapy
The first historical records are found in 6000-year-old inscriptions on clay tablets found in the Persian Gulf. A papyrus from ancient Egypt lists 600 plants to which the individual areas of application were already assigned. In the Far East, it is China that can refer to the first herbal book. It contains over 1000 medicinal plants and was written around 3000 BC.
Hippocrates (around 460 B.C. to around 370 B.C.), the most famous physician of antiquity, is known to have worked extensively with herbs for healing purposes, as did the physician Dioscorides. The first medical textbook (1st century AD) is owed to him. At about the same time, the Roman physician Pliny Secundus compiled an encyclopaedia of medicinal plants with the considerable volume of twelve volumes. Claudius Gelenus, who lived in the 2nd century AD, is considered the forefather of modern pharmacology.
In the Middle Ages, it was mainly monks and nuns who dealt extensively with herbal medicine. The Benedictine nun and polymath Hildegard von Bingen (1089 – 1179) deserves special mention. The most famous doctor of the Middle Ages was Paracelsus. His doctrine of signatures states that one can conclude from the appearance of a plant that it has a healing effect. This doctrine was ridiculed for a long time, but today it is experiencing a renaissance in modern medicine. For example, the lung herb used as a tea for respiratory diseases is reminiscent of lung tissue in its appearance.
One of the darkest chapters of the Middle Ages was the Inquisition. Many men and women with knowledge of healing who devoted themselves to herbal medicine were persecuted as sorcerers and witches. In this way, much knowledge about phytotherapy was lost. Later, it was the “triumphal march” of chemistry that pushed the teaching of medicinal plants into the background. It was only in more recent times that it was finally rediscovered.
The pastors Kneipp, Künzle and Weidinger consistently pursued the approaches of phytotherapy, which the physician Dr. Rudolf Fritz Weiss put on a scientific basis in the 20th century. With his founding of the inaugural chair for phytotherapy in Germany, this discipline received its well-deserved recognition by orthodox medicine.
Phytotherapy in Home Use
The preparation of teas, tea blends and plant extracts is one of the preferred forms of application in the home. But only if these are prepared with appropriate care can they fully unfold their healing effect. Therefore, here is some practical advice.
Tea preparations work best when drunk in sips, preferably in the morning on an empty stomach and in the evening before going to bed. With an empty stomach, the mucous membranes can absorb the active ingredients much better. The dosage is usually one to two teaspoons per cup; children under six years of age receive half the dose. Teas for the relief of respiratory diseases (cough, bronchitis, etc.) can be sweetened. For many other teas, mainly for stomach and intestinal complaints), sugar should not be added. Teas that are used for gargling and mouth rinses (sage) are a special field of application. Here, the gargling time should be at least one minute, better up to five minutes.
When preparing certain plant components, the layperson can quickly make mistakes without expert guidance. In these cases, the effectiveness is no longer given. Therefore, some practical tips on the correct use of the medicinal plants of phytotherapy:
- As trivial as it may sound, it makes a difference whether a tea bag is hung in hot water or poured over with it. The temperature also plays a not insignificant role.
- Mauve flowers should only be poured over with lukewarm water. In order for them to release their active ingredients, the tea should then steep for an hour.
- Flowers, seeds and leaves as well as other plant components (roots) that contain essential oils are always poured over with boiling water, covered and strained after five to ten minutes.
- Various herbs and roots (marshmallow root) are poured over with cold water and only then boiled up.
- A long boiling time of 10 to 15 minutes is needed for barks, woods, roots and some herbs if they contain tannins and silicic acid.
- In the case of heat-sensitive and at the same time water-soluble components, such as those contained in valerian and mistletoe tea, it is recommended to dissolve the components in cold water (approx. half an hour).
Phytotherapy places strict requirements on the harvesting, drying and processing of medicinal herbs. Storage is also an important factor for effectiveness. Therefore, herbal teas should be stored in sealed jars in a cool and dark place. The storage time is a maximum of one year.
Other Forms of Administration in Phytotherapy Are
Inhalations find their preferred application in cold complaints such as cough, blocked nose, bronchitis and sore throat. A well-known example is the anti-inflammatory and mucolytic effect of camomile. For this, the herbs or flowers are boiled in a pot. The vapours are inhaled by the patient bending over the pot. A towel placed over the head prevents the vapours from escaping. Alternatively, a commercially available inhaler can be used.
Baths and Compresses
For full and partial baths, larger quantities of teas, herbs and extracts are needed. As a rule, one tablespoon per litre of water is calculated. After adding to the bath water, wait another ten minutes with the bath so that all the ingredients can unfold. The recommended temperature is 35°C to 40°C. Rising footbaths have proven effective for circulatory problems and to ward off colds. In case of cardiovascular problems and diseases of the veins, rising baths should be avoided as a precaution.
For body washes (e.g. for skin impurities), cloths or gauze pieces are soaked with the tea. The washing is done gently and without pressure with circular movements. Envelopes have the task of releasing the ingredients over a longer period of time. Therefore, they should be left on the affected skin areas for several hours. When applying to the eye, make sure that the liquid can always drain from the outside to the inside.
Tea Preparations and Their Use in Phytotherapy
Tea preparations and their use in phytotherapy
The use of medicinal herbs as tea preparations has proven its worth in phytotherapy for prevention and supportive treatment. As home remedies, they provide valuable services especially for the following complaints:
- Colds and infections of the respiratory tract
- Diseases of the cardiovascular system (for mild forms of illness)
- Stomach complaints and digestive problems
- Skin diseases, allergies and minor injuries and bruises
- Bladder problems
- Menstrual disorders
The herbal remedies are prepared gently and are therefore usually well tolerated. It is not advisable to prepare herbal combinations on one’s own without the appropriate expertise or to take large quantities over a long period of time.
In the case of these contraindications, all groups of medicines should only be taken after consultation with a doctor or alternative practitioner:
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Persons with organic diseases
- Weakening of the immune system
If there is no improvement after three days or if pain and fever occur, a doctor should be consulted. In case of vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and allergic reactions, phytotherapy should be discontinued. As you can see, phytotherapy is a very versatile but also complex treatment method of alternative medicine.