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Phytotherapy uses herbs as a source of medicinal chemicals. White willow will be used as a source of salicylic acid (the historical origin of aspirin) and nettle as a source of iron. Research into the actions of the chemical constituents of the herbs will elicit the use of the herb. The pharmacological properties of the herbal constituents are of importance when the herbs are to be combined with pharmaceutical drugs, to prevent (or minimize) drug-herb interactions. A phytotherapist may advocate the use of herbal extracts (see Choices Available below), however most herbalists believe that the actions of the whole herbs are more than the sum of the individual actions of its chemical constituents (and this is starting to be shown scientifically), and so prefer to use the whole unadulterated herb.
Herbal Energetics As well learning about the pharmaceutical actions of a herb and the physiology of the human body, many herbalists use energetics in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, this takes into account not only the nature of the disease, but also the nature (or character) of the patient and plant. This is an important part of a holistic approach to health. Temperature is often part of an energetic diagnosis, a person and a disease may be hot or cold, and this may be treated using a the opposite energetics in a herb. For instance a hot inflamed skin condition may be treated using a cooling herbs such as chickweed, and cold hands and feet may be treated by taking ginger, which is hot. Some energetics can be explained by pharmacological and physiological actions, but not all. Most energetic knowledge comes from empirical knowledge. Medical Herbalists in the UK use a range of different energetics (several of which are mentioned below), along with a knowledge of phytotherapeutics (the chemistry of the herbs), to create a herbal prescription.
(Each of the descriptions below are very brief, brevity is not meant to imply simplicity.)
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) aims to balance the Chi (lifeforce) within a body, with disease being a result of an imbalance. Everything consists of 2 sides, yin and yan, with the yin representing the active state and yan representing the physical state. It is important to recognise that in TCM terms such as 'heart', 'stomach' and 'kidney' do not mean the physical organ as we understand it, but rather a range of actions and characteristics of the person.
Ayurvedic Medicine originated in India. It aims to promote balance in the body. People naturally are a mix of 3 different 'dosha': vata, pitta and kapha. An imbalance of these dosha may lead to disease. Herbs (and foods) will have different effects on the dosha, for instance increasing vata or decreasing pitta.
Humoural Medicine was practised by the Arabs and the knowledge then migrated to Europe. It was the main form of medicine practised in Europe until the growth of modern medicine; and humoural terms such as phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine and choleric, may still be used in the English language to describe the characteristics of people. A phlegmatic illness will be characterised by an excess of heat and damp, therefore a dry, cooling herbal prescription would be suitable.