Background of phytotherapy

The history of phytotherapy provides important information on how this type of alternative medicine has developed up to the present day.

pharmacy faculty
29 July 2022

In ancient times medicine was completely different from what we know today. The use of drugs and new medical techniques has produced a constant evolution and abrupt changes in medicine. This does not mean that medicine in ancient times was not functional, only that the old methods were adapted to the new times. Therefore, the background of phytotherapy has a relevant weight for pharmacy professionals.

Introduction to the background of phytotherapy

A historical summary of the use of medicinal plants and the development and implementation of phytotherapy as a science and therapeutic alternative helps to understand and trust their efficacy and safety. The use of medicinal plants for curative purposes is a practice that has been used since time immemorial.

For a long time, natural remedies and, above all, medicinal plants, were the only resource available to mankind. The first herbalists date back to the time of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Phoenicians. They constitute a compilation of the knowledge of the period concerning the curative properties of plants, starting the history of phytotherapy.

Among the ancient civilizations, Ancient Egypt stands out, with papyri related to medicine. These compile and describe a series of formulas in which they used some 400 raw materials (mostly of vegetable origin). They were used for the elaboration of medicines that were applied by means of advanced forms of administration such as pills, lumps, cookies, powders and suppositories.

In India, the so-called “Ayurvedic medicine” was developed, which is still in use today, and which mainly uses plants in its treatments. Among the medicinal plants introduced by the Hindus, many are still used in current therapeutics, such as pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, sandalwood, caraway and others.

Use of plant species

The therapeutic use of plant species was the main basis of classical Greek and Arabian medicine. In classical Greece, the Corpus Hippocraticum, was the first treatise in which about 230 plant species are collected; their identification, description of the part used, their effects on the body and their therapeutic applications, the amount to be used, the most appropriate form of administration and their toxicity.

Later it was Dioscorides in the first century, who described in a work the properties and form of use of some six hundred medicinal plants. This work was expanded in the field of medieval Islamic Hellenism, including species of African and Asian origin. The ancient Arab physicians, among whom Avicenna was prominent, recovered the works of the physicians of classical antiquity to use them as the basis of their medical teaching.

In the Renaissance, there was an important incorporation of new medicinal species. This happened with the discovery of the new world and the arrival of Europeans in East Asia. In the 14th century, a great development took place, as medicinal plants began to be cultivated in botanical gardens in order to be studied and classified.

The development of phytotherapy began officially on a worldwide scale. When the first official pharmacopoeia (a list of remedies and officinal preparations) was published in Florence (1498): the Antidotarium Florentinum.

XVIII Century

At the end of the 18th century, medicine had an important knowledge of plant species for medicinal use and there was a great scientific development of the therapeutic use of plant species with the appearance of Pharmacognosy.

During the second half of the 19th century, pharmacology developed largely around the study of herbal remedies, as numerous active principles were isolated. The study of these allowed the relationship between the active principles and their action on the organism to be explained.

These discoveries led to the beginning of drug synthesis and medicinal plants were practically excluded from therapeutics, their use being limited to popular medicine (mainly in rural areas) and the naturopathic field (a movement that arose in Central Europe in the mid-19th century, based on Hippocratic humoralism, which reached a remarkable acceptance among a large part of the population).

History of phytotherapy: the transition to modernity

However, in the second half of the 20th century, there was a resurgence of natural medicine. This happened partly due to the detection of adverse effects in synthetic medicines or the increase in the control methods of analysis of plant drugs. It is currently estimated that 60-80 % of the world’s population uses phytotherapy. This happens at some point in their lives and that in developed countries the percentage of citizens who do so on a regular basis is increasing.

In Spain, seven out of ten Spaniards (68%) claim to use medicinal plant preparations. This is to prevent or treat ailments, according to a study by the Center for Research on Phytotherapy (INFITO).

Among the institutions that promote and encourage the use of phytotherapy are the Commission of the German Ministry of Health. Its purpose is the study of plant drugs and their combinations, the European scientific cooperative on phytotherapy (ESCOP), European federation of the scientific societies of phytotherapy of the different European countries, the World Health Organization (WHO), with its program on traditional medicine and the European Pharmacopoeia with its monographs related to plant drugs and derivatives. In Spain, the Spanish Society of Phytotherapy (SEFIT), founded in the year 2000, stands out. Its purpose is the development and study of medicinal plants and their applications.

Which professional is involved in phytotherapy?

This question can be applied in several professional fields, but it is safe to say that the main actor is the pharmacy professional who has the possibility to take advantage of this knowledge to the maximum, providing his community with an added value. Knowing all about phytotherapeutic medicine helps to broaden the possibilities of relief for different diseases.

TECH Technological University offers a broad portfolio of specializations including all possible professional fields. Among so many faculties, the Faculty of Pharmacy stands out with specializations such as the Master’s Degree in Pharmaceutical Care in Dermatology in Community Pharmacy and the Master’s Degree in Professional Pharmaceutical Care Services in Community Pharmacy.

A large number of professionals seek to specialize in phytotherapy due to the growing demand in this field. That is why TECH offers the Master’s Degree in Advances in Applied Phytotherapy for Pharmacy. In it, the professional will find the necessary information to complete his professional career in this area, thus becoming an expert in the field.

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