Although many might consider homeopathy and herbology (also known as herbalism or simply herbal medicine) to be in a similar class, they are two separate forms of alternative medicine.
Mortar and pestle used for grinding insoluble solids into homeopathic remedies
Homeopathy involves treating illnesses with remedies created by repeatedly diluting particular medicinal herbs, minerals or essential oils in water or alcohol, often until it’s present only in miniscule amounts. A homeopath who prescribes a particular diluted tonic does so after considering all aspects of a patient, including his or her symptoms, personality traits, overall physical state and even life history.
The efficacy of homeopathic remedies have been widely refuted by scientific research and clinical trials. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also warned against the use of homeopathy, which it regards as a threat to those who use it in preference to modern medicine to treat serious diseases like malaria and AIDS.
To properly understand homeopathy, it’s important to look at its historical context. It was the 18th century when the term homeopathy was coined by its first advocate, Samuel Hahnemann. Further back in history, all the way to Ancient Greece, Hippocrates was said to have pioneered homeopathy by prescribing mandrake root in small doses to treat mania, knowing that in larger doses it produced the same condition.
Drawing from Hippocrates for inspiration, Hahnemann saw homeopathy as a worthy alternative to traditional treatment methods of the time, some of which were brutal. These included bloodletting, purging and the administration of complex and dangerous mixtures. One such “remedy” provided at the time was known as Venice Treacle, and was comprised of 64 different substances, among them myrrh, opium and viper’s flesh. It was ineffective, of course, and often fatal. In light of the crude medicinal practices at the time, it’s understandable that homeopathy was a popular alternative.
Today homeopathic methods have largely been proven ineffective, although many people still buy into them. This may be partly because people who’ve undergone a range of treatments for a disease are likely to attribute their wellness to a form of treatment that was “personalized”, as homeopathy often is. For more information, see How does Homeopathy Work.
Herbalist gathering the flower heads of Arnica montana (photo by Abalg)
Like homeopathy, herbology is classed as a form of alternative medicine. Unlike homeopathy, however, it can be highly effective in treating various ailments.
Plants have been the basis for medicinal treatment for most of human history. Archaeological evidence points to the use of medicinal plants as far back as the Paleolithic era, approximately 60,000 years ago. Written evidence shows us that herbal remedies like the mulched bark of the willow were used over 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians. The Khoi of Southern Africa are known to have used the medicinal buchu herb, which has natural anti-inflammatory effects, for thousands of years.
Certain pharmaceutical medicines are prohibitively expensive for many populations, and herbal medicine is an affordable alternative. The WHO estimates that roughly 80% percent of the populations of both Africa and Asia rely on herbal medication for some form of treatment.
Over recent decades, large pharmaceutical companies have also been turning to herbal plants, discovering (or rediscovering) their important healing properties and incorporating or copying their beneficial components in modern medicines.