With increasing interest and movement toward ''alternative'' methods of healing and natural medicine, two of the most popular options are herbalism and homeopathy. I've found however, that many people conflate the two when they are in fact, very different. Confusion between herbs and homeopathic medicines is not surprising, since at least one third of the approximately 2000 homeopathic preparations are derived from herbs and called by their botanical names. Both methods involve the use of plants and natural ingredients to promote health and wellness. The methods and applications however, are very different. I have used and learned about both and I think it's valuable to understand the history and use of each.
Let's start with history..
History of Herbalism..
Archaeological evidence suggests that herbs were used as far back as 60,000 years ago and the first written records of herbalism appear on ancient Sumerian clay tablets dated over 5,000 years old (Hassan, 2015). All over the world, countless herbal traditions have developed, each unique and influenced by it's bioregion’s indigenous plants, climate, cultural traditions and philosophy, and sometimes also influenced by the herbal information shared between cultures. Herbs, and plants in general, have sustained the health and well-being of humankind for tens of thousands of years. "From the most ancient times, human beings have had a primal belief that plants contain healing powers'' (Wood). What is known as Western Herbalism has its roots in many places but three of the main ones are ancient Greek and Roman Medicine (the doctrine of signatures and the four humors), Chinese medicine (the balancing of vital force and the five elements theory) and Ayurveda (a complex earth based system indigenous to Nepal and India using concepts such as the 3 doshas). The history of Herbalism is complex and fascinating. I am only barely scratching the surface here.
History of Homeopathy..
Homeopathy was founded by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), who grew up in Meissen in Germany, received his medical degree in Erlangen in 1779, and died a millionaire in Paris in 1843. During his time he started to take regular doses of cinchona (i.e. quinine). He said this produced mild symptoms of intermittant fever (Malaria) but without the other rigors of the disease. This is what led him to write his book, The Oraganon of the Healing Art in 1810. (Loudon).
Medical treatment at the time was to a large extent crude and ineffective, consisting largely of potentially dangerous polypharmacy, purging, and profuse blood-letting (Loudon). You can see why the development of an alternative was highly attractive.
Now let's talk about the practice and applications of the two.
What is Herbalism? (This will be very simplified and trimmed down)
Well first, what are herbs? In herbal medicine the word herb is used to refer to plant parts including leaves, flowers, buds, stems, roots, bark, berries, seeds, rhizomes. Really, any part of a plant. Herbs can even include mushrooms, even though they are not part of the plant kingdom. Herbalism is the practice of using these plants to support health and wellness. It is often used as part of a holistic practice (restoring health by addressing deficiencies and correcting imbalances within the context of the person’s entire body and lifestyle and recognizing the uniqueness of each individual and their state of health). Many do not realize that herbs are the foundation of much of modern medicine as a result of numerous years of scientific research into active ingredients in plant medicine. A large range of potent drugs have been developed this way (aspirin from Willow Bark, digoxin from Foxglove, steroids from Wild Yam to name just a few). Over 70% of the drugs in the British Pharmacopeia have their origins in plants (Hoffman). This search for active ingredients, while very successful, is limited by perceiving plants as sources of drugs. This is pathology-based medicine and focuses on illness and disease instead of health and wholeness. Herbs have the ability to augment the inherent wholeness and life within us when used in their whole state.
In herbalism, herbs are extracted in various methods for their actions on various body systems or organs or for their vitamin, mineral and nutrient content. The herbs are used in their whole form (think teas, powders, capsules and in recipes for cooking) or extracted in their whole form into a menstruum such as alcohol, glycerin, vinegar, honey or oil (in ratios ranging from 1:2 - 1:5 most commonly). These preparations contain physiologically active amounts of the plant and very often use multiple plants to create synergy. In herbal medicine there's a measurable amount of active constituents in the final product. Defining herbalism could be a blog of it's own.
What is Homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a holistic medicine which uses specially prepared, highly diluted substances (given mainly in tablet form) with the aim of triggering the body’s own healing mechanisms. (2) Homeopathy also uses herbs and other substances but in highly, highly dilute forms (in many cases there is no detectable amount of the original plant matter in the final product). This is the “Law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic products are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain (1). You can find the potency on the label as a number and the letter C (6c up to 30c usually). This refers to how many times it was diluted. Each 'c' is a 1:100 dilution. So.. they dilute 1:100 and then take that and dilute that 1:100 as many times as the number indicates. This is called potentization. There is a process where they also shake the solution vigorously (succussion) and claim that the water 'remembers' the substance that was originally there. Homeopathic products are often made as sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue; they may also be in other forms, such as ointments, gels, drops, creams, and tablets.
Homeopathic prescribing is classically based on the Principle of Similars. This principle states that any substance that can create symptoms in a healthy person can be used to treat similar symptoms in a sick person. Hahnemann derived this concept while translating Cullen’s Materia Medica (Frye). In homeopathy the aim is to promote a healing response in the body. Using the theory that ''like begets like'', homeopathy often uses substances that would generate the same symptoms inside the body that you are aiming to alleviate. This is actually the root of the word homeopathy, with “homeo” meaning “similar” and “pathos” meaning “disease.” Homeopathy is a massive industry that's gained a lot of popularity of late and has its own lobbyists.
In regulatory terms, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems herbs to be dietary supplements, whereas homeopathics are regarded as drug products.
Loudon, Irvine. (2006). A Brief History of Homeopathy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1676328/
Wood, Matthew. (1997). The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines.
Hoffman, David. (1987). The Herbal Handbook: A User's Guide to Medical Herbalism.
Hassan, H.M.A. (2015). A short history of the use of plants as medicines from ancient times. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283793709_A_Short_History_of_the_Use_of_Plants_as_Medicines_from_Ancient_Times
Frye, Joyce C. (2004). Herbal and homeopathic medicine: Understanding the difference. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1543115003000309