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Phytotherapy – The Science of Herbal Medicines Use and Complications

Phytotherapy (Greek phyton = plant, therapeia = care) is one of the oldest therapeutic methods: Long ago, people have used plants to treat diseases and relieve discomfort.


The medicinal plants used in phytotherapy come fresh, dried or used as extracts and are for example also suitable for the production of tea , capsules, drops or ointments. In terms of effectiveness differ both the individual medicinal plants and the various preparations made from a medicinal plant. In pharmacology, the plants are subdivided according to their effectiveness into three types:

  • mild plants (Mite)
  • strong plants (Forte)
  • all other intervening plants that have no special labeling

There are different forms of phytotherapy:

  • The traditional herbal medicine is a national healing known ongoing proceedings, which relies mainly on traditional experiences. Special forms of traditional herbal medicine that have evolved over millennia are an important part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine in India.
  • The rational Phytotherapy (also allopathic phytotherapy called) is the traditional knowledge of traditional herbal medicine makes use of, but elevates it to meet scientific standards in the treatment of diseases the claim.

medicinal plants types

In contrast to many other naturopathic and alternative methods – such as homeopathy – the rational phytotherapy is not based on their own, differing from the (natural) scientific views or explanatory models. Accordingly, the mode of action of the phytopharmaceuticals – unlike that of homeopathic remedies – within the scientific world view is comprehensible . An important difference in this respect is the connection between dose and effect: the higher the dose in the herbal medicine, the stronger it works, while in homeopathy it should behave the other way round.


medicinal plants history use

Phytotherapy (herbal medicine) is one of the oldest medical teachings. Already more than 3,000 years ago , medicinal plants were used in China and India for the treatment of diseases . Plants were used medicinally in all high cultures and were the most important remedies until the beginning of the 20th century . In our culture the Greek Diocles of Karytos was the first to describe the preparation and application of plants of the Eastern Mediterranean around 350 BC.

Another Greek, Galen (129-199 AD), summarized in a multivolume work the known at that time medicinal plants with detailed preparation instructions. His remarks were binding throughout the Middle Ages.

With Paracelsus (1493-1541) began – in his work “Herbarius” – a systematization of domestic medicinal plants. Paracelsus tried by distillation, the essence of the plant – the so-called Arcanum – to separate from the unusable ingredients and thus to gain the pure active ingredient. In this way he received the first alcoholic plant extracts.

Detailed drawings of medicinal plants in herbal books are also from the same period . The first collections of dried plants ( herbariums ) and botanical gardens in Nuremberg, Padua, Pisa, Bologna and Heidelberg were created in the 15th and 16th centuries . Through careful observation and description of the plants and their effects, phytotherapy developed into an empirical science , which was increasingly natural scientific .

As a result, phytotherapy developed further in the traditional naturopathic direction , for example, with Sebastian Kneipp, but also in phytochemical direction. It was possible to isolate ingredients of plants – such as morphine from opium , the dried-on latex of the opium poppy – and pharmacologically to investigate. Isolated ingredients and their derivatives no longer belong to the phytopharmaceuticals, but are chemical substances.

In the 1930s , the pharmaceutical industry began to artificially produce medicines and created strong and fast-acting medicines that pushed the herbal medicines into the background. Today, however, phytotherapy is considered a valuable adjunct or alternative to chemical treatments.

Medicinal Uses

In phytotherapy, medicinal plants are used due to their effect on the human organism against diseases or symptoms used.

medicinal plants use

To carry out treatments, the plants and their parts (such as roots, leaves, flowers or seeds) are used both fresh and dried and processed differently. Accordingly, the administration form of herbal medicines is very variable: For internal use, oral teas , tinctures, tablets, capsules or juices are used; for external use, medicinal plants are usable for ointments, creams, poultices or bath additives.

Phytotherapy used for fresh plant can be used in several ways: It can be their juice containing components (such as fruit) squeeze or inflicting a wound stimulus (eg anritzen or cut) and collect then excreted secretions. In addition, you can distill fresh plant parts to get essential oils, or extracts : To get oily extracts, you can insert flowers in olive or almond oil, so that the active ingredients contained in the oil passover. It is also easy to carry out the treatment with fresh plants in the form of tea: it is a watery extract that is easy to prepare – as an infusion, by boiling or as a cold extract. In addition, in herbal medicine alcoholic extracts of fresh raw material (tinctures, extracts for further processing) of importance.

In addition, the phytotherapy extracts, for their extraction of dried plant parts special extractants (eg ethanol or water) added, so that the ingredients dissolve in it. Then you concentrate the ingredients in special procedures – for example by evaporation of the extractant. The final products are dry or special extracts that can be further processed in juices or capsules. In any case, in the herbal medicine always the ingredients of a medicinal plant found (or certain parts) total Use: therefore phytotherapeutics usually contain a mixture of several substances .

There are countless finished products for phytotherapy available. The treatment is also possible with home- made remedies (for example, doctors can prescribe a self-made tea mix). The plant material used in herbal medicine should come from controlled cultivation in order to guarantee the highest possible effectiveness and safety. In order to accurately dose herbal medicines, they must also be standardized in terms of drug content.

Application Areas

medicinal plants applications

For phytotherapy ( herbal medicine) a variety of applications come into consideration: This also applies to the individual medicinal plants, because: In general, herbal medicines have a broader spectrum of action than artificially produced drugs, because they typically contain mixtures, the individual ingredients can have different effects.

Basically, the more active ingredients a medicinal plant used in phytotherapy has, the more applications it is suitable for.

In phytotherapy, one can roughly differentiate between three areas of application :

  1. Diseases in which herbal medicines are best suited from a medical point of view and artificially produced medicines are out of the question (eg liver disease caused by liver-damaging substances)
  2. Diseases in which phytotherapy is an alternative to treatment with artificially produced medicines (eg St. John’s wort in mild to moderate depression , remedy with cumin , anise and fennel in irritable stomach )
  3. Diseases in which phytotherapy is an additional or supportive measure in addition to the basic therapy (eg heart disease and respiratory diseases )

Many people also use phytotherapy on their own – frequent areas of application include colds , nervous restlessness and falling asleep or stomach problems . For example, in the case of mild illnesses or disorders of well-being, medicinal products that are available without strong ingredients are suitable for self-medication. However, if the symptoms treated with phytotherapeutics do not disappear or intensify soon, a doctor’s visit is advisable. And even those who have a serious illness, should always seek the advice of a doctor before the handle on herbal medicine, because many herbal medicines are not without side effects and risks.

Risks and Complications

The herbal medicines (phytotherapeutics) used in phytotherapy (herbal medicine) are not free from undesirable effects . In order to minimize potential risks and complications, phytotherapeutics – as well as artificially and chemically produced drugs – must comply with the provisions of the German Medicines Act regarding quality, efficacy and safety. Doctors may only prescribe active substances whose benefits are greater than their risk.

Unlike homeopathic remedies, phytotherapy remedies undergo the usual approval procedures for non-homeopathic (allopathic) medications and are tested for efficacy . For them, the reason for the medical measure (so-called indication) can and must be stated in the leaflet. However, there are exceptions: Medicines whose efficacy is determined by traditional and documented experience in certain indications receive the addition “traditionally applied” (eg “To strengthen or strengthen the …”, “To prevent …” and the like ). For these drugs, the traditional experience as a proof of efficacy.

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