Brain-boosting ginko, stomach-soothing chamomile, cold-chasing echinacea and goldenseal, liver-cleansing milk thistle, anti-anxiety control St. John’s wort. All can be grown in your own back yard or used as a beautiful spring flower. And all have been and, no doubt, always will be part of our self-healthcare system.

A record 158 million consumers now use dietary and herbal supplements in the U.S., spending more than $10 billion every year for vitamins, minerals and herbs. A survey published in Prevention magazine indicated that this increased use of supplements and herbs is a direct result of interest from aging baby boomers and a sense of alienation from Western allopathic medicine, including our current healthcare system.

Herbal remedies are appearing regularly in the news and medical research journals. To illustrate the popularity of herbal medicine, the faculty of the Columbus Polarity Institute each spring teach modules on complementary and alternative medicine to first-year medical students from Ohio State University. During the first class session, the students are asked to list their reason for taking the class. Eighty percent indicate they want to learn more about herbal remedies. Obviously, herbs are a popular focus!

The next several installments of this column will be devoted to the wonderful world of herbs and the practical benefits of their use. Sharing her expertise with us will be Charoula Dontopoulos, a certified herbalist, Polarity practitioner and organic herbal gardener. Here is Charoula’s history and other background information on herbs:

Before there were drugs there were herbs. According to Alternative Therapies magazine, the word “drug” comes from the old Dutch “drogge,” meaning to dry, as in drying and preserving plants for medicinal use.

Herbal medicines have helped humans heal themselves since the dawn of time. Dried seeds, leaves and roots have been uncovered in caves, ancient graves and in buried layers of human habitation. The universal practice of herbal healing continued well into

the early part of the 20th century, until pharmaceutical companies began manufacturing medicines first by extracting specific chemicals from plants, then by synthesizing those chemicals in the laboratory.

Today pharmaceutical companies may spend up to $230 million to research a new drug, rather than proving the safety of an herbal medicine. Herbs, unlike drugs, cannot be patented and owned by any company and, in essence, are not as profitable. There are 300,000 known plants, most of them in endangered environments, which could alleviate problematic human conditions. Research is being conducted on only 5,000 of those.

Twenty-five percent of all prescription drugs are derived from plants. Consider ephedra, or ma huang: its key ingredient, ephedrine, is used in many decongestants. Digitalis, or foxglove, contains digoxin, which is used for heart conditions. Belladonna, though poisonous, is the source of atropine, the basis of many anti-spasmodics. White willow, a very traditional tree herb, is the source of salicin, the main ingredient in common aspirin.

According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the world population continue to use herbs to heal themselves. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, herbs are accepted as medicine and prescribed by physicians. In the U.S., despite scares about herb safety, botanical remedies enjoy an impressive popularity. Most herbs have consistently proven to be very effective with proper use.

Safe use of herbs is based on proper assessment and prescription: correct identification, precise gathering at the right time of the day and season, use of the right soil (preferably organic), and safe and effective drying and storage. It is important to know what parts of the plant, and in what quantity or form they are used. Herbs can be leaves, fruits, flowers, barks, roots and seeds. Their use may be internal, as in tinctures (liquid extracts of the whole plant) and teas, or external, as in essential oils, medicinal oils and salves. Consulting a trained herbalist is always wise.

The best way to use herbs is as a tea. Teas are mild and safe, but effectively deliver plant vitamins and minerals. For best results, instead of prepackaged teabags, buy bulk herbs from a reputable herbal source. For something stronger, use a tincture instead of pills. A tincture is highly absorbable and has a very long shelf life.

For millennia, plants have been our allies. However, they must be respected for their powers and never used lightly. If we recognize this, we will continue to derive significant benefits from herbs.

In the next few weeks, Charoula will present specific topics on the use of herbs, including how to boost your immune system to prevent those annoying winter colds. Stay tuned.

Sarah Breathmach, in her book on Simple Abundance, suggests that there is more mystery and lore to herbs than any other plants. Herbs, she suggests, were considered essential for a long happy and healthy life. Keeping an herb garden growing may well be the secret to longevity.

May the long time sun shine upon you.