Why should you learn about medicinal plants
According to World Health Organization, 80 percent of people in emerging nations rely on traditional medicinal plants for their primary healthcare needs. Despite the use of medicinal plants for centuries, we are still in the beginning stages of how they affect our health. Luckily, a renewed interest in holistic health and the therapeutic benefits of plants has increased the desire for scientific research to help explain what many have been saying for centuries.
As person who seeks to find answers to everything, I wanted to understand more about how medicinal plants work. Generally, if there is question I don’t know the answer to; my first step is to turn to Google. Google is great for many things including finding out what other movies that actor was in, learning new uses for coconut oil, but not for getting a clear understanding on how medicinal plants work.
I often find online sources — particularly those focused on natural topics — too generic, ambiguous, and lacking the detail I need to deeply understand a subject. Also, as someone who had a very brief stint as a journalist years ago, I have been conditioned to cite my sources and always be prepared for a fact check.
The truth is aromatherapy and herbal medicines are much too complicated of a subject to learn much from online sources. While starting my studies on plant-based skincare, botanicals, and medicinal plants, I found the answers to many of my top questions in good old-fashioned books.
I have compiled a list of books I used to jumpstart my understanding the chemistry, biology, health benefits, and safety concerns of medicinal plants. I have ordered the books in by knowledge needed to understand the content. The first in the list of each section is best for beginners; the last in the list is more advanced.
Books on essential oils
Essential oils are everywhere these days, but you have to sort through a lot to get accurate information. These books provide a wealth of information from topics ranging from safe dermal usage rates, safe levels of exposure in pregnant and lactating women, chemical constituents of every plant oil imaginable, and recipes for how to use essential oils to help recovery during radiation therapy.
The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy by Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D.
For those interested in digging in deeper to learning the science of aromatherapy, I highly recommend this book as your first stop. The author Kurt Schnaubelt has an impressive resume. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and is the founder of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy. Schnaubelt has put together a very accessible book, yet information-rich book on the complex science of aromatherapy.
The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils explores its relationship to evolutionary biology, cellular biology and pharmacology and the effect of plant materials on human health and the advantages these complex, multicomponent constituents have over traditional pharmaceuticals.
This book reminds me a bit middle school textbook by includes beautiful illustrations and visual call out boxes to make digesting advanced content easy and enjoyable.
Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice by Jennifer Peace Rhind
Jennifer Peace Rhind is a biologist with a PhD in Mycotoxicology (the study of toxins produced by fungi) who has written a number of books on aromatherapy. Not surprisingly given her background, she focuses a lot on the biological effects of essential oils of people and the botany of the plants where essential oils come from.
Particularly interesting was the chapter on the breakdown of the biological structure of the plants, where essential oils are found in these plants, and then the biological role these essential oils for defense and survival.
This book contains no illustrations but does include some charts which make absorption of the information easier.
Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young
If there is one reference book everyone interested in essential oils should own, this would be my pick. Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young contains everything you could want to learn about safe essential dosage for cosmetic or therapeutic usage.
The authors sift through studies of varying levels of quality to present safety information, key constituents, systemic effects, regulatory guidelines, and organ-specific effects, many professional herbalists, aromatherapists, and cosmetic chemists consult when creating formulas and treatments.
This is not the type of book you read from cover to cover, but more of a book that is always handy at your desk.
Books on medical herbalism and traditional medicinal plants
Despite being used for centuries, we are still in the beginning stages of understanding how medicinal plants work and quantifying their effect our health. The books will help you understand the history of medical herbalism, the many different applications and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of botanicals, the state of acceptance in the medical field and in government agencies, and how to better discuss herbalism with practitioners and others in the medical field.
Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care by Maria Noël Groves
Clinical herbalist, Maria Noel Groves, created a beautifully illustrated book that can help everyone understand how to incorporate herbs into their daily life.
This is a wonderful book for those interested in taking the first step to learn more about medicinal plants. It is light on citing evidence but every page of the book is a visual treat with photos and illustrations to make it easy to identify plants both in their natural form and as you might encounter them at a natural foods store.
Unlike the other books in this list, Grove includes herbal remedy recipes for teas, tisanes, sodas and broths. I’m a little weary of remedies without any research to suggest a positive effect, but her recipe for gin-soaked golden raisins for stiffness and arthritis pain may just be worth trying. 🙂
An Introduction to Botanical Medicines: History, Science, Uses, and Dangers by Antoine Al-Achi, Ph.D.
Al-Achi is a professor of pharmacology at Campbell University and has taught courses on botanical medicine to Doctor of Pharmacology students since 2003.
He is an advocate for increased clinical studies for botanicals, more involvement from government agencies to monitor quality, and better cooperation between all practitioners in healthcare — allopathic and holistic — to benefit the patient.
Despite being called An Introduction to Botanical Medicines, the book is written for people with some background in the healthcare, either through practice or as a patient. His goal is to give people enough information to intelligently discuss the topic with peers or a primary healthcare provider.
Through An Introduction to Botanical Medicines, Al-Achi does a good job of balancing academic terminology and presenting evidence-based information that is easy to understand for those with some background in the subject.
The book is categorized by botanicals effects on biological systems like cardiovascular, endocrine, psychiatric disorders and topical applications for the skin. Each chapter presents a number of botanicals that are claimed to help with specific conditions, providing studies that support the claims, and others where he debunks myths.
Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicines by David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG
This book with be the perfect next step after reading An Introduction to Botanical Medicines.
Written for practitioners and students of medical herbalism with a foundation in organic chemistry, as well as practitioners of other modalities interested in western herbal medicine, Medical Herbalism covers a lot of topics in its 600 plus pages.
There are many things Hoffmann does well with this reference book. He does an excellent job of breaking down phytochemistry, the branch of chemistry concerned with plants through comprehensive chapters on carbohydrates, lipids, terpenes, polyphenols, and alkaloids.
Since the effects of plants can rarely be traced to one single active ingredient, Hoffmann explains in detail about primary and secondary metabolites explaining what we know so far, and where more research is needed.
The second half of the book focuses on how the phytochemistry we learned in the first half through a model of holistic herbal medicine can be used to treat as therapeutic treatments for a wide range of conditions and to bring balance to the body’s systems. Included is a short chapter on skin, I refer to frequently because of my interest in topical delivery of botanicals.
Organic Chemistry by Khan Academy
It’s listed in honorable mention because it’s not a book. But, for those like myself who need a refresher on organic chemistry, I strongly recommend watching videos from this course on Organic Chemistry from Khan Academy. Without a general understanding of chemical structures and bonding, acid-base chemistry, naming and drawing conventions, and functional groups like alcohols, aldehydes, and esters, the more advanced books will be difficult to follow.
Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine by Barbara Griggs
If you are interested in understanding the history of herbalism, Green Pharmacy by Barbara Griggs is a wealth of information on the history of western herbal medicine, which until the 19th century is exactly the story of the history western medicine.
I wouldn’t consider Green Pharmacy required reading for most, but as a history buff, I love hearing the history of medicinal plants and how traditional folk remedies lead to the creation of pharmaceuticals we continue to use today. Unlike most of the books on this list, Green Pharmacy can easily be read cover to cover over a few days.
I put this on the honorable mention section for a few reasons. I’ll start with the positives.
Griggs does an excellent job of explaining the history traditional folk medicine starting almost with the beginning of people. She takes us through the early teachings of Greek physicians like Hippocrates and Galen, the former who is remembered, the latter who is not.
The book continues onto the advances of Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known in the west as Rhazes, who is known as the founder of many types of medicine including pediatrics, ophthalmology, psychology but who also practiced dabbled in alchemy, metaphysics and bloodletting. We learn about how a cure for scurvy was found and who syphilis was treated before the discovery of antibiotics.
Although the majority of the book is well researched and Griggs maintains an appropriate level of objectivity, Griggs own views start to reveal themselves in later chapters. Too, she occasionally includes a outrageous miracle cure story, and which may raise red flags and turn people off, myself included.
Perhaps this can be explained because of the time when it was written 20 years ago when complementary and integrative medicines were less accepted, but there is bit of an “us” (herbalists) versus “them” (modern medicine) narrative that emerges.
I suggest you recognize this before you start reading, because aside from a few chapters and anecdotes, the book is a treat.