At first glance, the practice of herbal medicine can appear confusing, with its foreign-sounding herb names and the plethora of forms available. This holistic modality goes by many names, including herbalism, medical herbalism, herbology, botanical medicine, and phytotherapy.
Herbal medicine involves the use of various parts of specific plants to achieve a healing effect on the body. Herbs produce their curative actions by causing physiological changes within the body or fighting disease-causing germs.
An herb can be defined as a non-woody plant, a kitchen spice, or any medicinal vegetation. Yes, there is crossover between culinary herbs and medicinal herbs. The herbs we add to our food do more than enhance its taste. For example, garlic adds flavor to pasta, but can also enhance immune function; cayenne spices up pizza, but can also help relieve arthritis pain.
There are many ways that herbs can benefit our pets. They are helpful for a multitude of conditions for which drugs are currently employed, including fighting infections, easing pain, assisting organ function, and improving hormone balance, just to name a few. Herbs can even help your dog or cat in ways that drugs cannot, such as improving his immune system function, helping him rid his body of toxins, and strengthening his resistance to environmental stress. At the same time, there is a place in a pet’s health care for conventional medications.
Although herbs can often be used in place of drugs—and many drugs have been derived from herbs—herbs are not drugs. Drugs usually consist of a high concentration of a single active ingredient and manipulate the body forcefully in a particular direction. Herbs, on the other hand, contain a whole host of ingredients and thereby they can have complex effects on the body. That is why the same herb used for diarrhea might also aid a constipated pet.
A major advantage of herbs over pharmaceutical medications is that herbs cause fewer side effects. This is not to say that all herbs are perfectly safe. The trade-off for gentleness of action is that herbs tend to take time (up to 12 weeks) to have their intended effect on the pet.
You may have heard the term Eastern herbs and assumed that it refers to the use of special plants that grow only in China. In reality, both Eastern (Chinese) and Western (Euro-American) herbology use many of the same medicinal plants. At the same time, there are important differences between the two schools of thought.
In the West, herbal medicine refers strictly to the use of plants. In China, animal parts and minerals are used in addition to plants. Western herbology tends to use single herbs for healing, while Eastern herbal remedies often contain as many as 12 to 20 medicinal components.
The biggest difference between Eastern and Western herbal practice is that Chinese herbs are used within the framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) (see Chapter 4 for more information on TCM). For example, in Western herbology there are several herbs that can be used for an upset stomach (ginger, chamomile, and peppermint to name a few). The only way to know which herb will work the best is through trial and error with each patient. In the Chinese model, different patients with digestive upset may have a different TCM diagnosis based on the balance of Yin and Yang. Eastern herbal medicine allows for a more exact fit between patient and remedy.