Defining the terms: Healthcare Systems & Botanical Modalities

Posted by Emily Rubeo on

Feedback from the blog on the difference between herbalism and homeopathy (here) had me thinking about the importance of knowing definitions of terms so often heard and used within the realm of healthcare. How else can someone make an informed decision about their health and purchases? As you know, one my goals is to help people make better and more informed decisions in those realms and to empower families to take their health into their own hands.

So.. another series has been born..

Defining the terms.

These posts will focus on terms exclusive to the realm of herbalism and related modalities. I will also cover terms used in cosmetics and skincare.

In this article I'm going to talk about ten different healthcare systems or botanical modalities commonly referred to. I'll offer simple and clear definitions to help you hopefully better understand these systems and their differences.


Also known as modern, conventional or Western medicine. "A system of medical practice that emphasizes diagnosing and treating disease and the use of conventional, evidence-based therapeutic measures (such as drugs or surgery)" (Merriam Webster). Allopathic medicine focuses on treatment modalities using pharmacological drugs, surgeries and radiation therapies. Allopathic doctors prescribe FDA approved medications and have a medical degree and the title MD (Doctor of Medicine). There are several specialties within allopathic medicine. It is different than Osteopathic medicine (DO). The latter tends to be a more holistic approach and a focus on treating the patient as a whole and not just a disease, symptoms or injury.


A botanical approach that uses aromatic plant oils (most often essential oils) extracted from medicinal plants or other aromatic means of delivery. The oils are used to promote psychological and physical well-being and the different chemical constituents and aromas can produce an assortment of reactions. These oils may be used topically, inhaled, or consumed orally (in some cases) to elicit physiological effects, often emotional, by olfactory stimulation.


In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life.” It is considered to be one of the oldest healing modalities. Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing.” It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples (The Ayurvedic Institute). Ayurvedic medicine places emphasis on prevention and attention is paid to food, herbs, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations to support vibrant health. This system has a recognizable characteristic of using approaches that are personalized according to a person’s constitution (prakriti) and the three mind/body types (doshas). The goal is find and maintain balance of mind, body and consciousness. I will explore these topics more in depth at another time. Many natural healing systems known in the West are influenced by Ayurvedic medicine.

Flower Essences:

Developed by Dr. Bach in the 1930s, this approach infuses flowers or other parts of plants in spring water preserved with a small amount of alcohol. Resultant essences are used topically or internally to influence emotional well-being. The process of sun steeping, or boiling the flower in water, is said to capture the energy imprint of the flower.


The art and science of using plants to nourish the body, mind, and spirit to support healing and promote well-being. Herbalism also encompasses ritualistic, folkloric, and cultural symbolism. It can include the use of whole plants or plant extracts in the form of foods, teas, powdered herbs, liquid extracts, incense, smudges, and topical preparations.


Based on the theory “like cures like,” homeopathic preparations are made of highly diluted plant, mineral, or animal substances that are “matched to specific symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process” (American Botanical Council, 2016). Most commonly these preparations are administered via sugar pellets. (More information can be found here).

Naturopathic Medicine:

“Emphasizing prevention, treatment, and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing process” naturopathy “includes modern and traditional, scientific, and empirical methods” (American Association of Naturopathic Physicians). Naturopathy uses diet, exercise and lifestyle alongside Ayurvedic, homeopathic and herbal therapies.  Naturopathy was developed in the late 1800s in the United States. Today, both naturopathic doctors and traditional naturopaths practice naturopathic medicine. A licensed naturopathic doctor (ND) attends a 4-year, graduate-level naturopathic medical school where they study basic sciences and therapies such as herbal medicine, homeopathy, and bodywork. Naturopaths may attend training programs that vary in length and content, but they usually aren't licensed.

Indigenous/Tribal Medicine:

This refers to beliefs and practices related to care of the physical and spiritual being that have been passed generation to generation through oral tradition, ceremonies and rituals (American Botanical Council). Some techniques may include the use of botanical or animal medicine, prayer, ceremony, and ritual and are unique to each group, region, or tribe.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM):

Based on a foundation of over 2,500 years of observation and practice, in the 1950s a myriad of widely used traditional practices were unified by the Chinese government, officially named Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and promoted as a system to be integrated with modern medicine. TCM describes a balance of energetics in terms of yin and yang and a vital force, Qi (pronounced chee). The goal of TCM is to correct underlying imbalance and manifestation of illness in a person as opposed to treating a disease. For yin and yang to be balanced and for the body to be healthy, qi must be balanced and flowing freely. When there is too little or too much qi in one of the body's energy pathways, called meridians, or when the flow of qi is blocked, it causes illness. In addition to herbs and food, TCM includes acupuncture, acupressure, massage, and movement therapy (American Botanical Council).

Western Herbalism:

As one of the modern practices of herbalism in English-speaking Western world (Wood, 2006), traditional Western Herbalism draws from herbal traditions and plants from across the world and throughout history. Traditional Western herbalism has its roots in Greco-Roman medicine, including the humoral system, while also incorporating aspects of Arabic, Ayurvedic, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The modern clinical practice of Western Herbalism is also informed by the work of Thomsonian, Eclectic, and Physiomedical botanic physicians of the 18th through early 19th century American Botanical Movement. In addition to these traditions and centuries of clinical and empirical experience, modern Western herbalism is also informed by modern pharmacological research that studies the potential therapeutic applications of specific constituents found in medicinal plants. In the United States, there is no license for herbalists.

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  • I had no idea they’re were so many different types! I definitely had some lumped together in my mind. Thanks for clarifying the differences!

    Tara on
  • Very interesting!

    Lydia on
  • I have often wondered what the differences were to these practices. Thank you for taking the time to write this in a way that we can easily understand!

    Cari on
  • Fantastic write up! Thank you so much for providing this information in such an easy read. I’ll be keeping this post handy for future reference.

    Samantha J on

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