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Sunday, May 13, 2001

HERB THYSELF

Rediscovering nature's healing powers


Staff writer

Records of their use can be found in the ruins of Mesopotamia, dating back to 5,000 B.C.

Approximately a millennium later, the ancient Egyptians were using them to help preserve their royalty for the afterlife.

Here's to the humble herb and its potent powers.

In the fifth century B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates documented their various medical benefits, and, later, Roman armies took them into battle to heal their wounded. Through the Roman conquests, and later in the Crusades, they spread through Europe and beyond.

What are they? Herbs, of course, nature's healers.

Although Japan has benefited from China's similarly long and rich history of herb use, its fascination with Western herbs is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has grown steadily, however, and after about a decade of increasing interest, the nation now enjoys a veritable potpourri of Western herbs, available in myriad forms.

You'll find restaurant kitchens seasoning their dishes with fresh herbs, cafes serving fragrant herb teas and esthetic salons using essential oils for aromatherapy and reflexology. Trendy gift shops sell scented pillows and sachets, while cosmetic sections at department stores push herbally enhanced products.

As with all trends, herb has become a buzzword, a catchall equated with health. There is no end to the list of herbal this and herbal that, but what exactly defines an herb?

In a broad sense, herbs are any plant used as medicine, seasoning or flavoring. They include thyme, sage and cloves, which have antibacterial properties; mint, basil, lemongrass, rose hip and fennel, which are good for digestion; and chamomile, passionflower and linden, which are believed to relieve tension and irritation. Seasoning herbs include parsley, oregano, dill and chive -- to name just a few.

Despite the long history of herb use for healing purposes, over time developments in science relegated herbal remedies to folklore -- the wisdom of grandmothers. Even in Japan, where herbs were at the center of medicine until the Meiji Restoration, the treatment of maladies with herbs had been slapped with the label "alternative." Now, however, modern doctors are gradually validating our ancestors' sage advice.

What's that smell?

Hatsuko Wada discovered the power of herbs 15 years ago when she visited Herb Island, a farm and hotel in Chiba Prefecture that was way ahead of today's trend.

"I found a book written by a British naturalist ["The Art of Aromatherapy" by Robert Tisserand] at the shop in Herb Island and studied about aromatherapy in depth and the effect certain herbs have on organs such as the stomach or the intestines," she said. "The book became my bible."

Since then, Wada has studied herbs extensively and has written her own books on herbs, including "Becoming Healthy With Aromatherapy."

Wada believes you have to treat the mind to heal the body. She has found that certain herbs, when incorporated into aromatherapy treatments, can be effective as relaxants, relieving stress and, says Wada, priming the body for healing. She has created her own herb combinations that are effective in treating five types of stress, such as agitation, depression and irritation.

Wada is not the only one recently converted to aromatherapy. The number of major manufacturers and importers of essential oils increased more than fivefold between 1994 and 1996. Today, they bring to the Japanese market more than 50 different types of oils.

While the recent interest in Western herbs has focused on their relaxation benefits, gradually more attention has been gathering around medical aromatherapy.

Originating in Belgium and France, the holistic practice of medical aromatherapy involves applying diluted essential oils directly onto the skin and is a common aid in the fields of dermatology and obstetrics/gynecology.

In hospitals using the approach, the contents of essential oils have been thoroughly analyzed and are carefully prescribed to treat specific symptoms. As a natural remedy, medical aromatherapy is often used to complement traditional medical treatments.

Spearheading the promotion of this type of treatment is Akikazu Yoshida, founder of the Japan Medical Aromatherapy Association, which is recognized by Natural Aromatherapy Research Development, an international organization for herbal medicine.

Volunteering his services at hospitals and homes for the elderly, Yoshida applies lavender ointment on patients or elderly people to relieve bedsores and scents the rooms with its aroma to induce relaxation.

The association has already developed relationships with medical facilities to promote the use of herbal medicine and is in negotiations with the prominent Skin Clinic Daikanyama.

Back to nature

While this use of aromatherapy has yet to gain widespread acceptance in the medical community, grassroots awareness is growing. The JMAA oversees classes on aromatherapy, herb-tea blending and herbal skin care at 20 locations across the country.

A 29-year-old woman who is taking a trial course in herbal skin care said she made her own blend of hand and body gel by combining white birch and kelp with diluted true lavender oil and sunflower hybrid oil.

"I've always suffered from dry skin. The gel was very smooth and was not sticky when I applied it to my skin. The lavender aroma was really soothing, too, and it made me feel relaxed," she said.

Yoshida said his association will start next month to develop herbal ointments and gels in cooperation with a cosmetic company.

"These ointments, using water-soluble kelp and white birch as the base, can be applied directly on the skin. The major benefit of these ointments is that they do not have side effects," Yoshida said.

Of course, we can just buy dermatological ointments and sedatives at the drugstore, but there is something comforting about letting nature heal us. Could it be that we're actually uncovering the secrets of ancient Mesopotamia?

For more information about the JMAA and its aromatherapy classes, call (03) 5227-1836 or check out its Web site at plaza22.mbn.or.jp


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