When we speak about using plants as medicine there are two very different and distinct methods, Western herbalism and Chinese herbal medicine. I find a lot of confusion between these two methods, so I've written a little background on each.
Western herbal medicine or folk herbalism primarily treats symptoms such as asthma symptoms or coughs, colds, headaches, constipation symptoms, PMS symptoms etc. All cultures across the globe have used indigenous plants for their own brand of folk medicine. However, Western herbs in our modern day fell from the lime light when prescription medicine started being heavily marketed in the 1950’s. They seem to be making a comeback today, but large clinical studies are scarce and very expensive and this makes it difficult to know what really works. Good manufacturing standards, which are overseen by the FDA in the U.S. are getting stricter, but enforcement is lacking and herb quality control has no standardization.
In comparison, Chinese herbal medicine is the worlds oldest documented medicine. Chinese medicine has been continually practiced for over 2000 years. The same herbs have been prescribed for centuries. However, the method of prescription is done on what’s called “pattern identification” rather than on just “ bodily symptoms”. Pattern identification can get complicated but in a nut shell, a patients pattern diagnosis is made up of a person’s overall body constitution, medical history, emotional temperament, signs and symptoms. Chinese herb formulas are prescribed according to each individuals set patterns and often customized to treat both the underlying root cause of disease and symptoms.
Chinese medicine including Acupuncture is gaining popularity in the West as an effective alternative therapy. Unlike Western herbalism, China, Taiwan, Japan and other Asian countries have extensively researched and studied herbs in clinical trials. Today most of Asia depends on herbs for their primary medicine. Good manufacturing standards in Taiwan, a large producer of Chinese herbs, are extremely controlled compared to the U.S. and both enforcement and quality control standards are similar to pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in the U.S. The reason for these strict standards in Taiwan is because the herbs are covered as part of the Taiwanese National Health Insurance program and heavily depended upon for all types of illness. In fact, even a swine flu cure has been highly publicized in Asia using only cooked and processed Chinese herbs.
Hope this helps explain the differences, if you have any questions feel free to post below.