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Exploring the History of Using Herbs and Spices as a Medicine

Health & Wellness

Exploring the History of Using Herbs and Spices as a Medicine

Healing with herbs and spices goes back in history almost as far as the origin of mankind. Before modern medicine, people had to turn to plants for the relief of their ailments. Early man became very in tune with the particular therapeutic properties of plant parts, including their bark, seeds, fruit, leaves, and roots.

Before everything was written down (or searched for via the internet), everything was based on instinct. Early men couldn’t search Google for the cause of their pain and certainly couldn’t head to the library to flip through an herbalism book.

Early findings of the medicinal properties of plants were due largely to experimentation. These findings were passed on by word of mouth and finally written down for the first time thousands of years ago. 

herbs and spices on black backgroundFirst Documented Uses of Plants as Medicine

The oldest written evidence of the use of plants as medicine is documented on a Sumerian clay slab and dates back approximately 5,000 years. This slab included 12 different recipes for drug preparation, which referred to over 250 different plants. Some of the plants mentioned are Mandrake, poppy, and henbane.

In 2,500 BCE, Emperor Shen Nung published the book Pen T’Sao, which is a Chinese book focusing on roots and grasses. The book includes descriptions of 365 different medicinal plant parts, including camphor, ginseng, jimson weed, and cinnamon bark.

In approximately 1,550 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus was written. This book includes 800 different remedies consisting of 700 different medicinal plants. Some of the plants included are many that are still used in herbalism today—pomegranate, aloe, garlic, onion, coriander, and juniper.

In the works of Hippocrates, which range from 459–370 BCE, many medicinal plants were referred to along with their physiological actions. Garlic was used to fight off intestinal parasites, wormwood was used to reduce fevers, henbane and mandrake were used as narcotics, garlic as a diuretic, and pomegranate as an astringent.

Between 371 and 287 BCE, De Causis Plantarum (Plant Etiology) and De Historia Plantarum (Plant History) were written by Theophrast. These books included a classification of over 500 different medicinal plants. Theophrast was the first writer to enforce the importance of gradually becoming used to the effects of plants rather than taking too much too quickly. These books gained him the title “father of botany."

Perhaps one of the most popular herbalism books in history (which can still be found published today) is Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, written in 77 AD. This book contains 657 plant-derived drugs to cure a wide variety of ailments.

At the time, the book was one of the only documents that had almost every bit of information you needed to forage for and create these medicines yourself. Dioscorides included descriptions of the plants' outward appearance, as well as the locality in which they grew and the best way of harvesting them.

In this book, chamomile was prescribed to heal minor wounds, parsley was used as a diuretic, and a variety of mint species were used to ease headaches and stomach aches.1

pyramid in EgyptAncient Egyptians

For their time, the ancient Egyptians were advanced medical practitioners. Although they did not often practice surgery, their use of massage, spiritual healing, and herbal medicine was widespread. This is partly due to the mummification process, which led Egyptians to become accustomed to human anatomy and health.

Herbal medicines were made from cumin, fennel, pomegranate, caraway, aloe, and safflower. Many of the herbal preparations from this time are recorded in the Ebers Papyrus. Egyptians believed that garlic and onion improved endurance, and large quantities of both of these were consumed.

garlic and onions on wood backgroundIn fact, cloves of garlic have even been found at Egyptian burial sites. Raw garlic was often used to ease respiratory problems, while onion helped ease digestive issues. Raw garlic was also an important disinfectant, often crushed and added to a mixture of vinegar and water. This mixture was then gargled or used topically on minor wounds. Many medicinal herbs were also steeped in wine and then consumed as an oral medication.

Coriander was used for its ability to ease flatulence and promote proper digestion. It was often made into a tea to relieve problems of the urinary tract. The seeds of cumin were also thought to be effective against flatulence and were thought to be a stimulant.

Many leaves from medicinal plants such as willow, sycamore, or acacia were used in the making of poultices. Pomegranate was infused in water and then drunk to eliminate tapeworms, and mandrake was even thought of as an aphrodisiac. Many herbs were used during the embalming process, including thyme, lavender, and peppermint.2

Greeks and Romans

The ancient Greeks and Romans focused a lot on the overall lifestyle in terms of health. Food, drink, exercise, bathing, and massage were all considered important for overall wellbeing. In Hippocrates’ On the Nature of Man, the body is said to have four distinct humors. In order to maintain optimum health, these humors were thought to require perfect balance. This balance was affected by a person’s lifestyle, as well as the climate.

The Greeks and Romans used more surgical procedures than the Egyptians but still stressed the importance of herbal remedies. Many of these remedies were used to eliminate humoral excesses and ranged from easy-to-find herbs to the extremely exotic for those who could afford it.3

The Hippocratic Oath stated the obligations and proper conduct of doctors and was taken by all doctors who were beginning medical practice. Nowadays, parts of the Hippocratic Oath are still used by doctors before beginning practice.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the large majority of herbal medicine still focused on the Greek belief that the body was made up of four different humors: yellow bile, blood, phlegm, and black bile. An imbalance of these humors was thought to bring on disease, so many medical professionals during the time would attempt to relieve excess blood through bleeding and leeching.

Galen is thought of as the most influential physician in the Middle Ages, although his knowledge of human anatomy came mostly from the dissection of animals. While his practices are thought to have impeded medical progress, his writings of Greek medicine were transferred to the Western world by the Arabs.

herbs on wooden backgroundMedicinal plants were an important part of treatment in the Middle Ages. Most monasteries had a medicinal herb garden, and those who were sick often went to the monastery or local apothecary to find relief.

Headaches were often treated with rose, lavender, or sage. Sore muscles and joints were treated with a combination of henbane and hemlock, while fevers were reduced by coriander. Mint was used to treat digestive issues, and respiratory problems were treated with comfrey and licorice.

During the times of the Black Death, plague doctors often wore masks with long beaks that were stuffed with a mixture of aromatic herbs and spices, such as rose, mint, and camphor. This was though to prevent them from becoming infected with the plague, which they believed was airborne.4

young man preparing ayurvedic medicine in the traditional mannerAyurvedic and Ancient Chinese Medicine

Ayurvedic medicine—originating in India—and Ancient Chinese medicine have many similarities. These two forms of healing are the oldest in existence and have not strayed far from their origins. While you would be hard-pressed to find a doctor still willing to regulate the humors in your body, you can find practitioners who specialize in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The focus of both of these systems of medicine is more focused on the patient than the disease. Instead of focusing on one particular symptom, these forms of medicine view the body as a whole. Instead of “treating” an illness, Ayurveda and TCM aim to promote overall health and wellness and enhance the quality of life.

They are both known as holistic forms of healing, which is the belief that all parts are connected to a larger entity. Holistic treatments consider the big picture rather than just particular symptoms. Both Ayurveda and TCM focus on the connection of the mind, body, and spirit to promote health.5

Ashwagandha powder and root on black stone backgroundWhile the systems do differ from each other in some ways, the herbs used for treatment are similar. In Ayurvedic medicine, cinnamon is used to promote healthy digestion and ease stomach disorders. In TCM, cinnamon is used to ease the pain of menstruation, treat diarrhea, and soothe digestive upsets.

Ashwagandha is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine and is used to treat a wide variety of ailments. In TCM, ginseng is the herb used for a large range of health issues.


It is pretty fascinating that many of the herbs that were used for medicinal purposes in ancient times are still used to treat the same symptoms today. While some ancient medical practices are questionable, the plants themselves have not changed.

Mint can still be used to ease digestive issues, while chamomile can still be used to promote wound healing. This stresses the idea that instead of only looking towards new pharmaceuticals, we should consider also looking back to our roots to heal.

Photo credits: Dionisvera/, MohamedHakem/, AntonovaGanna/,  LiliGraphie/,  NilaNewsom/,  IndianFoodImages/

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