Herbalism is, quite simply, the use of herbs to support and/or restore health. These herbs may be used in a variety of forms, such as “teas” (tisanes/infusions or decoctions), tinctures, oxymels, salves, poultices, or powders. It’s difficult to describe as a “system,” however, since it’s really more of a collection of systems.
Herbs are the oldest form of medicine, and most ancient cultures had their own frameworks for using it. Over the years, much of this knowledge has been largely lost in the West and later regained. Consequently, most Western herbalists today are not working within a framework they inherited, but reconstructing one based on their own observations and/or an amalgamation of other systems. This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t effective; it simply means they aren’t homogenous.
Depending on the skill and experience level of a given herbalist, he may be able to address severe illness or only more minor complaints. More extreme health issues often require more potent herbs that fewer herbalists are comfortable using. Virtually everyone can benefit from herbalism to some degree, even if it’s only to drink a cup of peppermint tea to settle a nauseated tummy, while some will be comfortable relying on herbalism to a much greater degree.
Many herbs are quite safe, with few (and minor) side effects, but if you choose to make use of herbalism on your own, be sure to check for any contraindications of the herbs you’re using.
Pay attention to the fact that herbalism isn’t necessarily holistic. Many Western herbalists today substitute herbs for pharmaceutical drugs but otherwise operate on the same principles — match an herb to a symptom to make the symptom go away. This may not always be a bad thing, but if you want holistic care, you need to find an herbalist who will use herbs to support your body as a whole, rather than only chasing symptoms.