Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine


Medical Herbalism:  
The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine 
by David Hoffmann
Healing Arts Press, 2004


David Hoffmann, highly respected author of seventeen books on herbalism, has outdone himself with his latest offering. In writing it, the author intends to bring together “the modern scientific movement with traditional herbal practice.” Every health care practitioner of Western medicine in the United States should read this book.

The book is divided into two parts, with twenty-six chapters in all. Part one includes an introduction to principles and practices of holistic herbalism, with chapters devoted to herbalism’s place in relation to both holistic medicine and medical science, information on plant classification, six chapters on the chemistry of herbs, a chapter on toxicity and safety considerations, and a discussion of the preparation of herbal medicine.

Part two starts with a general model for a holistically based herbal practice, followed by a chapter on each physiological system in the body (the digestive system, the respiratory system, etc.). Each of these chapters provides a description of the various pathologies, an overview and treatment of the specific diseased condition, the actions indicated to remedy the condition, specific remedies and suggestions for herbal treatments with an explanation of the actions of these herbs, and a broader context for the treatment that places the herbs within a holistic approach to healing.

Part two also presents a chapter on herbs for the elderly, another one on herbs for children, primary and secondary actions of herbs, and a materia medica (herbal description) of 150 Western herbs. In addition to the chapter on toxicity, a small section on safety considerations is included for each herb. Seven appendices appear at the end of the book, which include a general glossary, examples of meanings of the Latin names of selected herbs, a cross-referenced list of Latin and common herb names, a list of pharmacy terms, weights and measurement conversion tables, sources for herbal information, and a taxonomy hierarchy.

The chapters are exhaustively footnoted, taking advantage of the most recent information on herbs. Though Hoffmann is impeccably credentialed, with twenty-five years of practice as an herbalist, he never adopts a superior attitude about herbal medicines in relation to orthodox Western medicine. Instead of seeing herbalism as “alternative” medicine, he prefers to call it “complementary,” as he believes that herbalism can and should work with medical science. Nor does he feel that herbs are magical panaceas for all our ills. Rather, he believes that herbs must be used within a context that approaches healing in a multi-faceted way, utilizing exercise, nutrition, spirituality, and general lifestyle activities along with the herbs as part of the journey toward wellness. He disagrees with the practice of using herbs outside of the holistic context, which effectively reduces the herb “to the status of an organic drug delivery system!”

A good example of the holistic approach comes from his chapter on the digestive system. He notes that constipation can be treated with herbs, but that the best long-term way to treat it comes from adding more fiber to the diet. Some of the more well-known laxative herbs, he reminds the reader, are anthraquio-none laxatives, which “exert their effects by damaging epithelial cells, leading to changes in absorption, secretion, and motility.” While short term use of them is likely safe, repeated or long term use of these anthraquionone laxative herbs (such as Senna leaves and pods, or Cascara sagrada bark), can cause damage to the body, and are also contraindicated for women who are pregnant or nursing. The author suggests various non-anthraquionone herbs that can help by stimulating bile production (Yellow dock and Dandelion root), as well as giving examples of dietary fiber that will help.

The overall tone of the book avoids sensationalism, while providing much thought-provoking material. He gently reminds us that we must be able to question herbal authority, noting that “questioning” is not the same as “rejecting.”

The only negative aspect might be that, at 600 pages, it could seem a little intimidating for individuals who are only beginning to explore herbalism. For mid-level to advanced herbal students, however, or for any professional health care practitioner, this book represents an outstanding contribution. Kudos to both author David Hoffmann and to Healing Arts Press for giving us this amazing volume. Leah Samul.

» Originally appeared in PanGaia #43

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