How Global Traditional Medicine & Herbalism Helped Shaped Alternative Medicine

Published on April 15, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Herbalism, also known as herbal folklore, herbal medicine, or traditional medicine, is the practice of using plants, herbs, and flowers to support wellness. 

It has been a central part of traditional and indigenous healing practices worldwide since ancient times.

From North America to Asia, Europe to Africa, and everywhere in between, every culture has their brand of herbalism born from native plants and passed on by traditional healers.

Today, herbalism is experiencing a renaissance, with no less than 80% of the world's population using herbs for basic healthcare needs,REF#3898 REF#3899 and many more using them for culinary and personal care purposes.

Many drugs we rely on today were also inspired by or extracted and synthesized from various herbs and plants.

Yet, very few of us are aware of the history and origins of the herbs we rely on today.

In this article, we pay homage to seven types of traditional herbalism across cultures, the origins of some of today’s most popular herbs, and how Gaia Herbs is helping ensure these plants are protected, ethically cultivated and sourced, and available for future generations.

What is Traditional Herbalism?

Herbalism, also known as herbal medicine, botanical medicine, folk medicine, herbal folklore, phytomedicine, or phytotherapy, is a traditional medicinal practice based on using plants and plant extracts. 

The plant parts used in herbalism include seeds, berries, roots, leaves, fruits, bark, flowers, or whole plants, depending on the herb and preparation. 

As previously mentioned, herbs play a central role in every traditional medicine practice worldwide, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Native American Medicine, Iranian Islamic Medicine, and more.

According to a 2014 research paper, over 53,000 species are used in various forms of herbalism.REF#3900

Unfortunately, several face extinction due to overexploitation and poor or unethical harvesting practices.

In North America, herbalism is practiced by many different types of practitioners, including traditional herbalists, medical herbalists, Ayurvedic practitioners, acupuncturists, functional medicine doctors, health coaches, community herbalists, midwives, chiropractors (in some states), and other integrative health professionals.

Herbs are also widely available to the public as supplements, teas, bulk herbs, essential oils, spa products and treatments, and various personal care products.

In other words, herbs have become commonplace in American households and other developed countries to support a healthy, active lifestyle.

Herbal Origins: 7+ Traditional Medicine Practices That Helped Shaped Global Herbalism and Modern Medicine

Most health-conscious people incorporate some form of herbalism in their wellness routine, whether drinking herbal tea for energy or calmness, taking supplements to support immunity, or using herbal-infused skincare products.

However, very few of us know much about the history or origins of these plants or how their mechanisms of action came to be known.

Yes, many herbs and plants have been the subject of various research studies that have shed light on how and why they may work to support specific aspects of health. 

However, the discovery and use of these plants are rooted in traditional indigenous medicine and herbal folklore.

In this section, we’ll explore the origins of some of the world’s most beloved traditional herbs by examining seven traditional medicine practices that have helped shape modern global herbalism and complementary alternative medicine.

1: Ayurveda and Herbalism

Ayurveda, also known as Ayurvedic Medicine or Ayurvedic Herbalism, has been the traditional wellness practice of India for over 5,000 years.

The basic principles of Ayurveda promote optimal health and well-being by balancing the human body, mind, and spirit. 

The focus is on an individual's unique constitution called Prakriti, which is said to determine how they might respond to medications, environmental factors, and diet. 

The Prakriti is comprised of a unique balance of three doshas:

  1. Pitta
  2. Vata
  3. Kapha

These Doshas relate to the five elements: Water, Air, Earth, Fire, and Ether (space).

According to Ayurveda, when the doshas are in balance, a person experiences good health, while imbalances can lead to illness and disease. 

Therefore, Ayurveda focuses on helping people achieve and maintain balance in their doshas through various techniques, treatments, and lifestyle considerations, including:

  • A balanced, dosha-specific diet
  • Regular exercise, emphasizing yoga
    Stress reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • Herbalism
  • Breathwork
  • Bodywork, such as massage therapy

Many Westerners are introduced to Ayurveda through yoga, meditation, healing foods, the work of Deepak Chopra, or Ayurvedic herbal supplements or teas.

Turmeric (and its primary active compound, Curcumin) is one of the most-studied herbs.

Examples of Herbs Used in Ayurveda:

Learn more about Ayurveda in: Ayurveda 101: Introduction to Ayurveda Principles from Ayurvedic Wellness Coach, Anna Levesque.

2: Traditional Chinese Medicine and Herbalism

Traditional Chinese Medicine is the ancient traditional wellness practice of China that includes herbal, animal, and mineral therapies, acupuncture, acupressure, diet, cupping, moxibustion, Qigong, Tai Chi, and other modalities to bring health by creating balanced “Qi” or energy, throughout the body.

Licensed acupuncturists and Doctors of Oriental Medicine practice Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

Medical Doctors may also practice acupuncture under their medical license if they’ve undergone specific training.

Other practitioners, such as herbalists and other integrative health practitioners, may utilize different aspects of TCM, such as herbs, Qi Gong, or cupping, but an acupuncture license, which is granted after 6-8 years of education (2-4 years undergrad followed by 4-6 years post-grad TCM studies) is required to practice acupuncture.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the most accepted forms of traditional medicine in Western culture. Acupuncture and other modalities are practiced in hospitals, clinics, and various medical and integrative settings in North America and Europe.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have also been the focus of hundreds of research studies.

Examples of Herbs Used in TCM:

Learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine in: A Complete Overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

3: Traditional African Medicine and Herbalism

Traditional African Medicine is considered the world's oldest wellness and herbalism practice.

Traditional African medicine practices vary widely across countries, and indigenous wisdom practices are prevalent throughout the continent. However, most ascribe to the philosophy that relations between God, ancestors, the living, and the universe impact health.

Traditional African healers may recommend different herbs and other plant, mineral, or animal substances (zootherapy),REF#3901 offer nutritional advice, and employ various methodologies, including:

  • Attendance at births (birth attendants are usually older women who have mastered the skills of midwifery through experience)
  • Bodywork
  • Bone Setting
  • Exercises
  • Healing rituals, such as prayers, dancing, and animal sacrifice
  • Surgeries, such as circumcisions
  • Various diagnostic systems

Various herbs are used throughout Traditional African Medicine as supplements, teas, topicals, culinary dishes, body treatments, and different healing rituals and ceremonies.

Examples of Herbs Used in Traditional African Medicine:REF#3902 REF#3903 REF#3904

  • Acacia, also known as Gum Arabic
  • Artemisia, Asteraceae, or Wormwood 
  • Bitter Aloe or Cape Aloe
  • Bitter Melon
  • Devil’s Claw
  • Ginger
  • Honeybush
  • Madagascar periwinkle
  • Pelargonium sidoides, also known as African Geranium or Umckaloabo
  • Rooibos
  • Wild Ginger

Although many of these herbs may seem unfamiliar to North Americans, chances are you’ve tried them. For example:

  • Acacia, also known as Gum Arabic, is a common food additive used as a thickener, stabilizer, binder, and flavor enhancer
  • Pelargonium sidoides (also known as African Geranium or Umckaloabo) is a common ingredient in herbal cough syrups
  • Rooibos is a common ingredient in herbal teas, especially those that are red in color

Unlike Western countries, which have recently rediscovered the benefits of traditional herbs, the majority of Africans have held fast to their traditional herbal practices, even in the face of colonization and adversity.REF#3905

Learn more in: An Overview of Traditional African Medicine, Herbs, and Plants.

4: Native American Medicine and Herbalism

Non-indigenous Americans are typically aware of some aspects of Native American Medicine and herbalism, such as the use of tobacco or psychedelics in ceremonies.

However, the traditional healing practices of the North American indigenous go far deeper, and we all benefit from them today.

Native American medicine is primarily spiritual in nature, with a person’s health relating directly to their sense of purpose, gratitude, generosity, and how they treat Mother Earth and follow the guidance of the Great Spirit. 

Although the name suggests there is one standard system of medicine, practices, rituals, diagnostics, and medicine vary from tribe to tribe.

Typically, a Native American tribe has an ordained Healer, Shaman, or practitioner who is spiritually called and skilled in attending to the tribe’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health needs.

These Healers practice various types of therapies, including ceremonies, bodywork, prayers, herbalism, and dietary counseling, and employ different diagnostics.

Much of traditional herbalism in America can be credited to the wisdom of the indigenous healers and sages who first studied our native plants.

Examples of Herbs Used in Native American Medicine Include:

Native American Healers were meticulous in their harvesting methods, taking great care not to over-harvest to leave enough for future generations.

In modern America, billions of dollars have been allocated to study various plants and herbs used in Native American folklore. Many of these have been the basis of life-saving drugs, making pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, the indigenous have received only a fraction of the profits from their ancestral heritage. For example, in the early 1990s, it was estimated that “less than 0.001 percent of profits from drugs developed from natural products and traditional knowledge accrue to the traditional people who provided technical leads for research”.REF#3906

To learn more about Traditional Native American medicine and herbalism, see How Native American Medicine and Herbalism Helped Shape Alternative Medicine.

5: Traditional Iranian-Islamic Medicine (Persian Medicine) and Herbalism

Traditional Iranian-Islamic Medicine, also known as Iranian Traditional Medicine, IITM, and Traditional Persian Medicine, combines the ancient traditional medicine of Iran (formerly known as Persia) with Islamic health-related doctrine.

Traditional Iranian/Persian Medicine is one of the oldest forms of healing, established thousands of years of integration with Islam.REF#3907

The combination of ancient spiritual and religious doctrine and the wisdom of sages and healers make IITM a diverse system of wellness encompassing diet, lifestyle, herbs, manual therapies, aromatherapy, and more.

IITM focuses on creating balanced ‘Mizaj, ' which loosely translates to a person’s temperament. Nine temperaments relate to the four humors and the four elements. 

Mizaj also relates to every natural substance, including food and drink.

These concepts are somewhat similar to Ayurveda's focus on Doshas and their five elements and Traditional Chinese Medicine’s goal to balance Qi and its five-element theory.

Iran’s diverse climate makes it a hotbed of functional plants.

Examples of Herbs and Flowers Used in Traditional Iranian Islamic Medicine Include:

Medicinal oils, including essential oils such as Sesame Oil, Frankincense, and Lavender, are also staple remedies in IITM.REF#3908

Discover more about Iranian Islamic Tradition Medicine in: A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Iranian-Islamic Medicine (IITM) & Herbalism.

6: Mexican Traditional Medicine & Herbalism: Curanderismo

Like many forms of Traditional Mexican Medicine, also known as Curanderismo, Mexican Folk Healing and herbalism are deeply rooted in spirituality.

Traditional Healers or Shamans are known as Curanderos and practice ancient holistic modalities that target three hierarchical realms:REF#3909

  1. The religious and/or spiritual realm
  2. The emotional realm
  3. The process of health and mental illness

There are four major subtypes of Curanderos, which may or may not overlap based on their specialties or approaches to health: 

  1. Sobadores typically perform bodywork to support digestive function and ease musculoskeletal pain.
  2. Yerberos are the herbalists and nutritional experts who recommend various herbal concoctions and dietary support for physical and mental well-being.
  3. Espiritualistas are faith healers who address soul sounds through religion, spiritualities, and rituals.
  4. Hueseros focus on resetting broken bones, sprains, and muscular damage.

There are also Parteras, who are traditional midwives.

Generally, Traditional Mexican Healers believe God or a higher power has the power to bring about healing, and employ prayer, rituals, and symbols as central to the healing process.

Some Curanderos view physical health as related to the four bodily humors: hot blood fluid, yellow bile, cold phlegm fluid, and black bile.

This is a high-level overview of Traditional Mexican Folk healing, which varies throughout the country.

Various herbs have been used in Mexican Folklore depending on the location and ethnic groups. Some examples include:REF#3910 REF#3911 REF#3912

Studies have shown many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans still rely on traditional folklore as their primary source of medicine.

7: South American Systems of Traditional Medicine and Herbalism

South America has a rich and diverse history of traditional medicine that varies from country to region based on indigenous healing wisdom.

The Andes region, for example, spans Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile and is home to various traditional healing practices.

For example, in Traditional Ecuadorian Medicine, herbs (over 9,000 of which are used for traditional healing), charms, guinea pigs (cuys), and incantations are used to promote healing and cleansing.REF#3913 Individuals’ level of health is assessed by considering their physical, mental, and emotional aspects, as well as their community and family influences. 

Traditional Ecuadorian healers may also rely on tongue diagnosis, as is practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Traditional Chilean Medicine comes from the wisdom of the Mapuche indigenous tribes, who utilized medicinal plants based on their views of the cosmos and spirituality.REF#3914

Mapuche’s communities are their values to the Mapuche’s vision of the cosmos and the necessity and balance of good/bad and health/disease for maintaining harmony.

Mapuches believe medicinal plants have a soul and are created by the divine to heal. However, they are also governed by a set of rules that determine their utilization by human beings. If these rules are not respected, the plants can work in opposition to the individual who has broken the cosmic, social, or natural balance.

Traditional Incan Medicine is a little better known in North America, particularly through the use of certain herbs, such as Maca, Ayahuasca, and Coco.

The ancient Incan Empire extended from present-day Argentina to Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and even part of Colombia.

The ancient Incas had no written language, so wisdom was passed down from healer to healer. We know it was a combination of spirituality and naturalism.

The Inca believed sickness resulted from a fault committed by the patient or a neighbor, which angered a god and/or caused a curse. 

Archaeological findings and written records from the Spanish suggest healers, known as “hampicamayoc,” relied heavily on supernatural forces and an extensive knowledge of botanical medicine. Their scope of practice included surgeries, sacrifices, mineral therapies, and rituals as well.REF#3915

It has been documented that the Incans had three main types of doctors, though there are conflicting opinions about this:REF#3916

  1. The Watukk diagnosed symptoms and illness through divination, visions, and dreams and found the cause through observing the patient’s everyday life. 
  2. The Hanpeq or Hampeq was knowledgeable about disease and acted as an herbalist and mineral expert, attending to the patient’s care and post-treatment.
  3. The Paqo treated the soul using rituals, plant and animal medicines, and healing stones.

Although Ancient Incan Medicine was practiced many years ago, it still influences traditional medicine practices in South America today.

Examples of Herbs Used in Various Traditional South American Medicine Systems Include:REF#3917 REF#3918

  • Amaranth
  • Ayahuasca
  • Belladonna
  • Boldo
  • Cat’s Claw
  • Catuaba
  • Chamomile
  • Chicha
  • Coco
  • Dragon’s Blood
  • Fennel
  • Maca
  • Quinoa
  • Sage
  • Sugarcane
  • Suman (Brazilian Ginseng)
  • Wella (Abutilon vitifolium

Due to space constraints, we can only elaborate on some of the traditional healing practices of South America, such as Columbian, Bolivian, Argentina, Brazilian, etc. 

However, this should give a flavor of the diversity and origins of these vast systems of traditional folklore. 

How Gaia Herbs is Helping Preserve The Legacy Of Global Herbalism

Today, herbalism is experiencing a resurgence of popularity in the West as more people seek to reconnect with their roots, gain autonomy in healthcare, and live a more natural and eco-friendly lifestyle.

However, as previously noted, most of the global population has always relied on traditional herbs to support well-being.

It is humbling to study the origins of many herbs and wellness practices we use today, many of which have been used, cultivated, and preserved for thousands of years.

At Gaia Herbs, we are working hard to ensure that these precious plants are protected and available for future generations.

From our work on our Regenerative Organic Certified® 300-acre herb farm to meticulous ethical sourcing of raw materials, raising awareness about herb adulteration, and our commitment to supporting herb farmers in the face of climate challenges, preserving and sharing the wisdom and benefits of these traditional plants have always driven our mission and progress.

Check out our 2023 Sustainability Report to learn more about how we’re helping preserve traditional herbs and the environment.


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