The field of medicine has long been divided between so-called ‘rationalist’ and ‘vitalistic’ principles. While the rationalist/scientific model has held sway (at least in the Westernised nations) for the last couple of centuries, vitalistic concepts of health and healing have made a comeback in the recent decades. A vast array of natural healing modalities—both ancient and new—have emerged, and some are even challenging orthodox medicine for part of the middle ground. Alternative medicine has become Complementary and Alternative Medicine (capitals intentional), or CAM for short; however, the question is often asked: ‘Is there any scientific evidence that proves any of these therapies work?’.
Of all the various complementary therapies, perhaps medical herbalism can be made to fit the orthodox model most easily. Given that many of the pharmaceutical drugs in use are derived from plants directly or indirectly, it is obvious that at least some plants contain compounds with pharmacological activity that can be harnessed as medicinal agents. While few would disagree with that proposition, there are many who persist in referring to herbal medicines (along with other ‘alternative remedies’) as unproven and therefore of little or no clinical value. Increasingly, the public—and particularly the medical establishment—are demanding herbalists and other complementary therapists provide scientific evidence for the efficacy and safety of their practices. While this is an admirable objective, it cannot be achieved overnight, given the complexities of the herbs themselves, the variety of formulas and prescribing methods available and the difficulties in adapting medical models to the herbal practice.