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The History of Herbal Supplements
Herbs and plants have been used for millenia to improve health. Plants that have demonstrated beneficial effects include herbs, roots, cacti, mushrooms, trees, succulents, seeds, flowers and mosses.
Herbal ingredients are used in nutritional supplements, Chinese medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, herbal remedies and in many health foods and beverages.
Throughout the years, herbs have often been misunderstood. Some were thought to have magical properties. Later these superstitions were proven to be false. Other herbs were ignored as being useless, and now modern medical science is finding that these compounds really do have effects on the body.
The oldest herb in history may be ginkgo biloba. Fossils from the Paleozoic era tell us that the ginkgo biloba tree has been on earth for millions of years.
Prehistoric tribes of hunter-gatherers would include in their diet any berries, leaves, roots, mushrooms, cacti, seeds, herbs or any parts of any plants that were found to be edible.
Over many millennia, various herbs and plants were chewed, made into teas, pounded into pastes, made into oils, gargles and snuffs, and added to various foods and drinks.
Before the invention of writing, knowledge was passed from word of mouth. Often a wise woman or medicine man would act as a tribe’s prehistoric equivalent of a doctor.
Over the eons of time, effects of herbs were learned by trial and error. Some plants, such as the hemlock tree, were found to be poison. Herbs such as valerian roots were found to make a person drowsy, while other herbs such as tea, contained caffeine and would help people to feel more awake.
Somewhere along the way in history, white willow bark was boiled in water and made into a tea that somehow helped relieve aches and pains and lower fevers. In recent times it was discovered that this tree bark contained salicin, which was later synthesized into acetesalicylic acid, better known as aspirin. Today aspirin has become the number one selling over the counter remedy around the world.
Medicine in ancient Mesopotamia
The name Mesopotamia (meaning "the land between the rivers") refers to the geographic region which lies near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and not to any particular civilization. In fact, over the course of several millennia, many civilizations developed, collapsed, and were replaced in this fertile region. The land of Mesopotamia is made fertile by the irregular and often violent flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. While these floods aided agricultural endeavors by adding rich silt to the soil every year, it took a tremendous amount of human labor to successfully irrigate the land and to protect the young plants from the surging flood waters. Given the combination of fertile soil and the need for organized human labor, perhaps it is not surprising that the first civilization developed in Mesopotamia. The origins of civilization can be traced to a group of people living in southern Mesopotamia called the Sumerians. By c.3500 BCE, the Sumerians had developed many of the features that characterized subsequent civilizations. Towns grew to be cities, an early form of pictographic writing was used, metal working had begun, and temples were built on a monumental scale. Generally speaking, however, true civilization is said to have begun around 3100 BCE with the development of cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was a system of writing established by the Sumerians which required the use of a stylus in order to make wedge-shaped marks on wet clay tablets, once the tablets were dry they could by stored, transported, etc. After its development, cuneiform became the dominant system of writing in Mesopotamia for over 2000 years. Even after Sumerian became extinct as a spoken language, many other Near Eastern cultures continued to write using cuneiform. As a result of its extensive use of several centuries, many cuneiform tablets have survived. These tablets provide historians with the opportunity to glimpse the culture of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.
Mesopotamian Medical Practitioners
By examining the surviving medical tablets it is clear that there were two distinct types of professional medical practitioners in ancient Mesopotamia. The first type of practitioner was the ashipu, in older accounts of Mesopotamian medicine often called a "sorcerer." One of the most important roles of the ashipu was to diagnose the ailment. In the case of internal diseases, this most often meant that the ashipu determined which god or demon was causing the illness. The ashipu also attempted to determine if the disease was the result of some error or sin on the part of the patient. The phrase, "the Hand of..." was used to indicate the divine entity responsible for the ailment in question, who could then be propitiated by the patient. The ashipu could also attempt to cure the patient by means of charms and spells that were designed to entice away or drive out the spirit causing the disease. The ashipu could also refer the patient to a different type of healer called an asu. He was a specialist in herbal remedies, and in older treatments of Mesopotamian medicine was frequently called "physician" because he dealt in what were often classifiable as empirical applications of medication. For example, when treating wounds the asu generally relied on three fundamental techniques: washing, bandaging, and making plasters. All three of these techniques of the asu appear in the world's oldest known medical document (c. 2100 BCE).
The knowledge of the asu in making plasters is of particular interest. Many of the ancient plasters (a mixture of medicinal ingredients applied to a wound often held on by a bandage) seem to have had some helpful benefits. For instance, some of the more complicated plasters called for the heating of plant resin or animal fat with alkali. This particular mixture when heated yields soap which would have helped to ward off bacterial infection. While the relationship between the ashipu and the asu is not entirely clear, the two kinds of healers seemed to have worked together in order to obtain cures. The wealthiest patients probably sought medical attention from both an ashipu and an asu in order to cure an illness. It seems that the ashipu and the asu often worked in cooperation with each other in order to treat certain ailments. Beyond sharing patients, there seems to have been some overlap between the skills of the two types of healers: an asu might occasionally cast a spell and an ashipu might prescribe drugs. Evidence for this crossing of supposed occupational lines has been found in the library of an ashipu that contained pharmaceutical recipes. Another textual source of evidence concerning the skills of Mesopotamian physicians comes from the Law Code of Hammurabi. This collection was not found written on a tablet, but was discovered on a large block of polished diorite. It was not a code of law in the modern sense, but probably a collection of legal decisions made by Hammurabi (c. 1700 BCE) in the course of his activities as a judge and published to advertise his justice. Several similar collections are known from other areas and periods, and Hammurabi's cannot be taken as representative of all Mesopotamian justice -- in fact, it is outstanding for its application of the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, while other "codes" allow monetary penalties. Among Hammurabi's laws were several that pertained to the liability of physicians who performed surgery. These laws state that a doctor was to be held responsible for surgical errors and failures. Since the laws only mention liability in connection with "the use of a knife," it can be assumed that doctors in Hammurabi's kingdom were not liable for any non-surgical mistakes or failed attempts to cure an ailment. It is also interesting to note that according to these laws, both the successful surgeon's compensation and the failed surgeon's liability were determined by the status of his patient. Therefore, if a surgeon operated and saved the life of a person of high status, the patient was to pay ten shekels of silver. If the surgeon saved the life of a slave, he only received two shekels. However, if a person of high status died as a result of surgery, the surgeon risked having his hand cut off. While if a slave died from receiving surgical treatment, the surgeon only had to pay to replace the slave. This use of status to evaluate misdeeds does not seem to appear in other, similar "codes" however.
Regardless of the risks associated with performing surgery, at least four clay tablets have survived that describe a specific surgical procedure. Unfortunately, one of the four tablets is too fragmentary to be deciphered. Of the remaining three, one seems to describe a procedure in which the asu cuts into the chest of the patient in order to drain pus from the pleura. The other two surgical texts belong to the collection of tablets entitled "Prescriptions for Diseases of the Head." One of these texts mentions the knife of the asu scraping the skull of the patient. The final surgical tablet mentions the postoperative care of a surgical wound. This tablet recommends the application of a dressing consisting mainly of sesame oil, which acted as an anti-bacterial agent.
Another important consideration for the study of ancient Mesopotamian medicine is the identification of the various drugs mentioned in the tablets. Unfortunately, many of these drugs are difficult or impossible to identify with any degree of certainty. Often the asu used metaphorical names for common drugs, such as "lion's fat" (much as we use the terms "tiger lilly" or "baby's breath"). Of the drugs that have been identified, most were plant extracts, resins, or spices. Many of the plants incorporated into the asu medicinal repertoire had antibiotic properties, while several resins and many spices have some antiseptic value, and would mask the smell of a malodorous wound. Beyond these benefits, it is important to keep in mind that both the pharmaceuticals and the actions of the ancient physicians must have carried a strong placebo effect. Patients undoubtedly believed that the doctors were capable of healing them. Therefore, at the very least, visiting the doctor psychologically reinforced the notion of health and wellness.
Ancient Egyptian Medicine
The Egyptians believed that disease and death were caused by a god, a spirit, or some other supernatural force. They had shaman-physicians, who would discover the particular entity causing the disease and then drive it out with magic rituals or talismans, as well as medicines. The duties of Egyptian physicians included creating medications, providing magic spells and prayers to provide healing, mending broken bones, dentistry, embalming, surgery, and autopsy. Physicians were often very specialized. “From the tombstone of Iry, chief physician to a pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, we learn that he was also "palace eye physician" and "palace stomach bowel physician" and bore the titles "one understanding the internal fluids" and "guardian of the anus."
A common diseases among the Egyptians was the parasitic disease Schistosomiasis, an infection by the larval worm of a snail. Humans are infected when they come into contact with the free swimming worm, which is released by the snail into water. The worm burrows into the skin and enters the veins of the human host and causes anemia, loss of appetite, urinary infection, and loss of resistance to other diseases.
The commoners also suffered from the injuries and deformities caused by hard labor. They suffered from insect born diseases such as malaria and trachoma, an eye disease, small pox, measles, tuberculosis, and cholera. It is believed that there were occasional outbreaks of the bubonic plague spread along trade routes from the east. They contracted diseases such as trichinae, parasitic worms, and tuberculosis from their livestock. Leprosy, which had originated in Egypt, was relatively rare, possibly because of the immunity that tuberculosis sufferers have. Silicosis of the lungs, caused by breathing in sand particles was a common cause of pneumonia for the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians also suffered from diet-related ailments such as malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, dental abrasion, and ailments normal to all humans such as arthritis.
A great deal of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine comes from the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus and the Kahun Papyrus. The Edwin Smith Papyrus and the Ebers Papyrus date from the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC. These manuscripts are believed to be derived from earlier sources. They contain recipes and spells for the treatment of a great variety of diseases or symptoms. They discuss the diagnosis of diseases and provide information of an anatomy. They detail the ancient Egyptian concept of medicine, anatomy, and physiology. The Kahun Papyrus is a gynecological text that deals with topics such as the reproductive organs, conception, testing for pregnancy, birth, and contraception. Among those materials prescribed for contraception are crocodile dung, honey, and sour milk.
Please do check the MEDICAL page for remedies and usages of plants by the ancient Egyptians
Chinese medicine is famous for its extensive use of herbs and plants. For over five thousand years, Chinese herbalists have used ginkgo biloba tree leaves, ginseng roots, Cordyceps mushrooms, teas and many other herbs and health tonics to support good health.
China has the longest history of continuous use and learning about medicinal herbs. The first recorded Chinese herbal study, called Ben Cao, is believed to have been written around 2000 B.C. by Emperor Shen Nong. The Emperor studied and wrote about over 300 plants and herbal remedies.
In Chinese medicine, doctors are oftentimes only paid for successfully helping people to maintain good health, not for trying to fix their problems after they are ill. Their philosophy is to focus on the yin and the yang balance of the entire body, rather than only treat an individual body part.
In Asia, thousands of pharmacists and doctors prescribe herbal remedies every day. Herbal supplements have been an accepted way of life for all of the know history in this part of the world.
In early times, herbs and spices were so valuable that their trade was one of the first forms of organized commerce. India played an important part in the herb and spice trade.
In India, the study of medicinal herbs has been ongoing since around 2000 B.C. and is known as Ayurveda which means the “science of life”.
The herb Gotu kola has been used to help memory throughout the history of India. Gymnema sylvestre leaves have been used to help diabetics and dieters overcome sugar cravings.
In the first century AD, the Greek physician Dioscorides made a thorough record of the medicinal uses of over 500 herbs and plants. This record, named De Materia Medica, informed and influenced herbalists for centuries afterward.
The famous Greek physician Hypocrites is considered the forefather of medicine. Hypocrites said “Let your food be your medicine” and his treatments often included herbs.
Herbal remedies were widely used in the Roman Empire, including crushed mint leaves, basil, oregano and mandrake herb. Other early uses of plants in Rome were for the poisoning of political opponents, and for antidotes to poisons.
The Roman emperor Nero created a kind of cure-all potion which remained in use for over 2000 years and may have been the first “patent medicine.”
Much of the Roman knowledge was lost when libraries and schools were destroyed by warfare. Many years later, Italy would be home to the first standardized dosage of ingredients. A pharmacopoeia called the Nuovo Receptario was published around 1500 and became a standard for pharmacists of the time.
The Middle Ages
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, during the “dark ages,” much of the learning and culture of European civilizations was lost. While barbarians ravaged the continent, monks and scribes in Ireland and Spain hand-copied books and written works.
Most monasteries also had gardens where Monks grew medicinal herbs. The liquor named Benedictine contains 27 herbs, plants & spices and was thought to be a health elixir. It is named after the religious Benedictine monks that invented it.
Native North Americans used black cohosh for women’s symptoms of menstruation, and now modern scientists have found it to offer an estrogen-like effect upon hormones.
In Peru, the bark of the cinchona tree proved useful against malaria and later became the source of quinine sulfate. The two French pharmacists who worked to isolate this much needed remedy could have patented it and enjoyed a millionaire monopoly. Instead they released their findings freely to the world in the name of good medicine. These young, unsung heroes whose work has saved untold numbers of lives from disease were named Joseph-Bienaime Caventou and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier.
Trees in Mythology
Forests play a prominent role in many folktales and legends. In these dark, mysterious places, heroes can lose their way, face unexpected challenges, and stumble on hidden secrets. Part of the age-old magic of forests lies in the ideas that people have had about trees. In myths and legends from around the world, trees appear as ladders between worlds, as sources of life and wisdom, and as the physical forms of supernatural beings.