Reformers of Plant Medicine

Reformers of Plant Medicine


Reformers of Plant Medicine

by Alan Hopking

(NB. This is taken from Alan's article that was published in Tthe Beacon over two issues, called THE REFORMERS OF PLANT MEDICINE - FOUNDATIONS AND OBJECTIVES: FORERUNNERS)

The use of herbs or plants in the treatment of human dis-ease down the ages has been world wide. Even today herbal medicine can be found in constant use in every country. There is probably nobody in the world who at some time has not taken a herbal remedy in some form. In China, India, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Laos, and many other countries, the use of traditional herbal therapy is part of the standard medical and surgical treatment.

Strangely enough, the modern scientific use of plants or herbs as medicines in England stems from an American tradition. The most influential English herbalists were John Gerard (1597), John Parkinson (1629), Nicholas Culpeper (1649), and later John Skelton. But it was an American called Dr Coffin who brought this reformed herbal approach to England in 1838. Coffin and Skelton gathered all the trained herbalists together into an Association in 1851, and in 1864 it became known as the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. It synthesised the Thomsonian (American) tradition and the English (European) tradition. Today this Institute is the largest and oldest professional organisation of herbal practitioners in existence. In North America, as a result of a synthesis of English and American-Indian traditions plus personal intuition and scientific insight the best remembered herbalists are Samuel Thomson, Wooster Beach, WH Cook, J Thurston, JT Lyle and JH Greer. These are the names which revolutionised the symptomatic approach that medicine had moved into. These names spanned 150 years from about 1750. The technical name of this herbal reformation became known as Physiomedicalism. It based its whole therapeutic science on the understanding of the vital force in the human organism. This was pioneer work which produced no end of conflict for it was the time when materialism was at its zenith. What these intuitive scientists wrote and spoke about concerning the vital force (the etheric energy as we now know it) corroborates exactly with the Vedic teaching and the modern esoteric explanations of Blavatsky, Bailey and others.

Vital Force, Herbs and Man

Let us see very briefly what physiomedical herbalism is all about. Its prime attribute is to understand the human being as a functioning physiological whole. To do this there was a need to comprehend what they called the Vital Force. This has been recently named by science as a body of bio-energetic fields. It underlies the physical and is the medium for life functions in the physiological activities: movement, assimilation and excretion, procreative activity, sense perception, it builds, repairs and maintains the body, it preserves the body from deterioration, and so on.
The next aspect physiomedicalism sought to understand was the action of medicinal herbs - that is to say how herbs affected the vital body of man; this involved understanding the vital-energy accumulation of every herb used. Luckily, centuries of use by herbalists of some hundreds of common medicinal plants which has made this the most comprehensive and complete clinical trial of any medicinal substance, succeeded in making this task very simple.

Physiomedical Vitalism

Right, what does the etheric body, the vehicle for vitality or pranic energy, do from a physiomedical standpoint? The basic action of the vital body is to pulsate; it transmits the power of life. And if we could get to that stage which is moments before pulsation, we'd find that impulse or urge to move. In physiomedical herbalism this is called stimulation, it is the primary action - then comes pulsation. Pulsation in physiomedicalism is the rhythm of contraction and relaxation. You will note here an echo from the Vedic science, which states that all life is threefold (I refer to the 3 gunas; these three gunas in western occultism have been known as Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, and which in Christian terms are recognised as Father, Son and Holy Spirit): Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic. Sattva is the impulse towards rhythm, to stimulation. Tamas is the impulse to inertia, relaxation. Rajas is the impulse towards activity, contraction or astringency. '

These three have reference in esoteric herbalism to the three parts of a plant, and the threefold man, viz.

Salt (tamas, matter, Holy Spirit)..... Roots.... CNS... Thinking
Mercury (rajas, love, soul, Son)...... Leaves... CVS... Feeling
Sulphur (sattva, spirit, Father)...... Fruit.... GIT... Willing

This simple formula: RELAX - STIMULATE - ASTRINGE according to T J Lyle 'represents the three principles of influence pervading the entire science of medicine.' Herbalists draw this as follows:

/ \

indicating that stimulation (Sattva) is primary whence we can either contract or relax the tissue. (Note. Stimulation may be defined: when the incoming vital energy is strong it stimulates; when it is weak it sedates.)

The objective in therapeutics is to apply a set of principles to the tissue or functional state of the organism in an effort to restore equilibrium throughout the body's systems between contraction (hypertonia) and relaxation (hypotonia).

Disease - Result of Energy Imbalance

We all know that health is entirely dependant on the what so often is glibly called "energy balance", what in medical science is called homeostasis. In other words, to maintain the state of health the input of rajasic energy must be offset or balanced by the tamasic energy, with the result of sattvic control - as wonderfully exemplified by the beat of the heart in its systolic and diastolic rhythm. When, however, this rhythmic balance, this pendulum swing, is disturbed for a sufficiently long time or in degree, then the oscillation becomes distorted and illness or disease results. Here we can note that disease is not some insidious entity, an animal that attacks us, but simply a rhythmic malfunction in our organism, an expression of the Vital Force towards corrective adjustment so that health can be restored. Cook stated that, 'The earliest departure of the tissues from under the full control of the Vital Force will be in the lack of ability either to relax or to contract some of the tissues as readily as in the healthy state.' Then we get into the situation where the vital energy is flowing too quickly through the centres or too slowly:


Where there is deficient energy flow what do we see in the symptoms presented?
Muscle laxity, flaccidity, atony, constipation, accumulation of urine and inability to void it properly, incontinence, loss of foetus in pregnancy (miscarriage), inadequate labour contractions at birth, overweight, etc.

And if there is superfluous energy, an over-abundance of vital force flowing through the patient, we'll find:
The loss of the ability to relax muscles at will, muscular rigidity, spasmodic action, colic, dysentery, diarrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, increased production of bile, over-production of urine, more perspiration on the skin, pulse more rigid and excited, elevated sensibility, irritability, at point of tears at all times, etc.

Thus to summarise this physiomedical approach to illness, a person deviates from a healthy constitution as soon as one of two things happen:
1. Energy is permitted (for karmic reasons or due to ignorance - if they're different) to enter the etheric (from subtler levels) too openly causing over-stimulation (or, as the old herbalists used to call it, the patient was of an astringent constitution).

2.The flow of energy is restricted from entering the organism with sufficient force, causing over-relaxation, and hence a 'loose etheric'.

Any substance or influence that will pervert or damage the normal vital standard of functional potency in the living matter of cells, must secondarily and proportionally pervert the functional integrity and harmony of the organised tissues and structures. For the vital force itself always and without exception makes the best of depraved conditions of its media - bioplasm. The Vital Force we are to remember is always integrative, resistive and maintains its integrity of purpose even in diseased conditions. Health is the proper balance and distribution of the four elements of matter: earth/water - the solid part of the body, and air/fire (ethers) - the cause of life and motion in the body. Whereas disease is always as a result of their disarrangement and malalignment. For all disease is caused by obstruction, said the founder of the physiomedical system of herbalism, Samuel Thomson.

And so physiomedical herbalism shows that diagnosis in terms of the primary changes (contraction/relaxation) is immediately pertinent in the selection of appropriate plant medicines.

Disease in Reality

Let us here emphasise what physiomedicalism is saying about disease, I'll quote from Wooster Beach: "What is termed disease appears in reality to be nothing more than an inherent principle in the system to restore healthy action, or to resist offending causes." Read this carefully.

"Disease arises from the imperfect application of the conditions which determine health; the effect of that imperfect application is a diminution of the forces upon which life depends" - that was a quote from the English herbalist John Skelton.

As was always reiterated by this group of reformers, the physiomedical herbalist must work holistically and therefore base his treatment around the physiological determinants which will return a patient to normal health - and if this requires him (and it does) to look into the patient's diet, exercise, emotional and mental life and other factors, as well as a physical examination, as well as involve the patient in his own responsibility towards his health and fitness, before prescribing a herbal remedy tailored for his condition, then this process must be pursued at the first consultation. In this way treatment takes into consideration the whole person.

The prime requisite directing all prescriptions of herbal medicine is that the functional balance and trophic state is restored. Then having assessed as accurately as possible the whole condition of a patient (and at times this can be extremely complex!) the herbal practitioner must formulate a prescription that best suits that person. For just as we clothe ourselves with different garments, some large, others small, some thick, others thin, some decorative to make us feel good, and so on, in the same manner the herbalist makes a remedy. The taste, surprisingly perhaps, is even taken into consideration - especially when treating children and sensitive patients.


But the alignment between the plant as a distinctive force within the human force body and the desired condition must ever guide the practitioner. For this, much training and still more practise was and still is seen to be imperative. Often symptomatic use of herbs brings relief. But when the condition is chronic or systemically acute symptomatic knowledge simply does not suffice.

Medicinal plants are the most evolutionary advanced in the vegetable kingdom. And those in this class which bear beauty and perfume are the aspirants, disciples and initiates of that kingdom. They (the devas who are the plants) enjoy being used by us for the purpose of healing. In the first part of this paper I described how this was achieved. In the latter part I have outlined the method by which the modern herbal practitioner comes to the decision when he selects particular plants to remedy the condition of the consulting patient. In this very act of will, which in fact is spiritual recognition of the highest purpose of a particular plant, the plant species transforms this positive energy of ours into spiritual growth, just as they use our appreciation of them, as when for instance we walk around our garden admiring them, to strengthen their life forces.

I hope that by this explanation of the basis of modern herbal treatment the furtherance of a right orientation towards health is gained.

Studies in Physiomedicalism - by A W Priest
Herbal Medication - by A W Priest & L R Priest
British Herbal Pharmacopoeia





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General advice to consumers on the use of herbal remedies from the Medicines Healthcare products Regulatory Agency

From the website of the Medicines Healthcare products Regulatory Agency ( Department of Health, UK

• Remember that herbal remedies are medicines. As with any other medicine they are likely to have an effect on the body and should be used with care. • Herbal remedies may sometimes interact with other medicines. This makes it particularly important to tell your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking a herbal remedy with other medicines such as prescribed medicines (those provided through your doctor or dentist). • Treat with caution any suggestion that a herbal remedy is '100% safe' or is 'safe because it is natural'. Many plants, trees, fungi and algae can be poisonous to humans. It is worth remembering that many pharmaceuticals have been developed or derived from these sources because of the powerful compounds they contain. Any medicine, including herbal remedies, which have an effect on the body should be used with care. • Treat with caution any herbalist or other person who supplies herbal remedies if they are unwilling or unable to provide written information, in English, listing the ingredients of the herbal remedy they are providing. • If you are due to have a surgical operation you should always remember to tell your doctor about any herbal remedy that you are taking. • Anyone who has previously experienced any liver complaint, or any other serious health complaint is advised not to take any herbal remedy without speaking to their doctor first.


Pregnant/Breast-feeding mothers

Few conventional medicines have been established as safe to take during pregnancy and it is generally recognised that no medicine should be taken unless the benefit to the mother outweighs any possible risk to the foetus. This rule should also be applied to herbal medicinal products. However, herbal products are often promoted to the public as being “natural” and completely “safe” alternatives to conventional medicines. Some herbal ingredients that specifically should be avoided or used with caution during pregnancy. As with conventional medicines, no herbal products should be taken during pregnancy unless the benefit outweighs the potential risk.

Volatile Oils

Many herbs are traditionally reputed to be abortifacient and for some this reputation can be attributed to their volatile oil component.(6) A number of volatile oils are irritant to the genito-urinary tract if ingested and may induce uterine contractions. Herbs that contain irritant volatile oils include ground ivy, juniper, parsley, pennyroyal, sage, tansy and yarrow. Some of these oils contain the terpenoid constituent, thujone, which is known to be abortifacient. Pennyroyal oil also contains the hepatotoxic terpenoid constituent, pulegone. A case of liver failure in a woman who ingested pennyroyal oil as an abortifacient has been documented.


A stimulant or spasmolytic action on uterine muscle has been documented for some herbal ingredients including blue cohosh, burdock, fenugreek, golden seal, hawthorn, jamaica dogwood, motherwort, nettle, raspberry, and vervain. Herbal Teas Increased awareness of the harmful effects associated with excessive tea and coffee consumption has prompted many individuals to switch to herbal teas. Whilst some herbal teas may offer pleasant alternatives to tea and coffee, some contain pharmacologically active herbal ingredients, which may have unpredictable effects depending on the quantity of tea consumed and strength of the brew. Some herbal teas contain laxative herbal ingredients such as senna, frangula, and cascara. In general stimulant laxative preparations are not recommended during pregnancy and the use of unstandardised laxative preparations is particularly unsuitable. A case of hepatotoxicity in a newborn baby has been documented in which the mother consumed a herbal tea during pregnancy as an expectorant. Following analysis the herbal tea was reported to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are known to be hepatotoxic.

Breast-feeding mothers

A drug substance taken by a breast-feeding mother presents a hazard if it is transferred to the breast milk in pharmacologically or toxicologically significant amounts. Limited information is available regarding the safety of conventional medicines taken during breast-feeding. Much less information exists for herbal ingredients, and generally the use of herbal remedies is not recommended during lactation.

Paediatric Use

Herbal remedies have traditionally been used to treat both adults and children. Herbal remedies may offer a milder alternative to some conventional medicines, although the suitability of a herbal remedy needs to be considered with respect to quality, safety and efficacy. Herbal remedies should be used with caution in children and medical advice should be sought if in doubt. Chamomile is a popular remedy used to treat teething pains in babies. However, chamomile is known to contain allergenic sesquiterpene lactones and should therefore be used with caution. The administration of herbal teas to children needs to be considered carefully and professional advice may be needed.

Perioperative use

The need for patients to discontinue herbal medicinal products prior to surgery has recently been proposed. The authors considered eight commonly used herbal medicinal products (echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, kava, St John’s Wort, valerian). On the evidence available they concluded that the potential existed for direct pharmacological effects, pharmacodynamic interactions and pharmacokinetic interactions. The need for physicians to have a clear understanding of the herbal medicinal products being used by patients and to take a detailed history was highlighted. The American Society of Anaesthesiologists (ASA) has advised patients to tell their doctor if they are taking herbal products before surgery and has reported that a number of anaesthesiologists have reported significant changes in heart rate or blood pressure in some patients who have been taking herbal medicinal products including St John’s Wort, ginkgo and ginseng. MCA is currently investigating a serious adverse reaction associated with the use of ginkgo prior to surgery. In this case, the patient who was undergoing hip replacement experienced uncontrolled bleeding thought to be related to the use of ginkgo.

From the website of the Medicines Healthcare products Regulatory Agency ( Department of Health, UK


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