About Herbal Medicine

What Is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is also known as botanical medicine or phytomedicine, and refers to using the seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark or flowers of plants for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside conventional medicine; it’s becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control, as well as advances in clinical research, show the real value of herbal medicine in treating and preventing disease.

Herbal medicines are prescribed taking into account the whole person in order to support and strengthen the organ systems so that the body can heal itself. Herbal medicines are made from extracts of the whole plant not isolated synthesised chemicals. Herbal remedies have been found to be effective in a wide range of conditions including the treatment of respiratory, circulatory, urinary, nervous, gynaecological, stomach, bowel and skin problems.

A Brief History Of Herbal Medicine

Plants have been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history; ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3000 BC. Cultures, such as African and Native American used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed more traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which herbal medicine was used. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.

In the 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists started to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Following this, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favour of medicinal drugs. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.

The World Health Organization

Over the last few years, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. In Germany, almost 700 plant based medicines are available and are prescribed by approximately 70% of German physicians. Over the past 20 years, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, mixed with an interest in returning to natural and organic remedies has led to an increase in the use of herbal medicine.

How Do Herbs Work?

In many cases, scientists aren’t actually sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and they may work well together to produce a beneficial effect. A lot of factors determine how effective a herb will be; for example, the type of environment (bugs, climate and soil quality) in which a plant resides will affect is, as will how and when it is harvested and processed.

How Are Herbs Used?

The use of herbal medicine has increased dramatically over the past 30 years of so. Herbal medicine is classified as dietary supplements by the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) of 1994. This means herbal supplements, unlike prescription drugs, can be sold without being tested to prove that they are actually safe and effective. However, herbal medicine must still be manufactured according to good manufacturing practices.

Some of the most commonly used herbal medicines include:

  • Echinacea (Echinacea Purpurea)
  • St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum)
  • Garlic (Allium Sativum)
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo Biloba)
  • Ginseng (Panax Ginseng)
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)
  • Saw Palmetto (Serenoa Repens)
  • Valerian (Valeriana Officinalis)
  • Chamomile (Matricaria Recutita)
  • Feverfew (Tanacetum Parthenium)
  • Ginger (Zingiber Officinale)
  • Evening Primrose (Oenothera Biennis)
  • Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum)


Herbal medicine practitioners often use herbs together because the combination is more effective than most means of herbal medicine. Health care providers must take a wide array of factors into account when recommending herbs, such as the species variety of the plant, the habitat of the plant, how it was stored and processed and whether or not there are contaminants, such as heavy metals or pesticides.

What Is Herbal Medicine Good For?

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as allergies, asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cancer. It’s best to take herbal medicine under the supervision of a trained provider; for example, one study found that 90% of people with arthritis use alternative therapies such as herbal medicine. Since herbal medicine can potentially interfere with prescription medications, make sure you consult with your doctor of pharmacist before taking any herbs. Some common herbs used in herbal medicine and their uses include:

  • GinkgoGinkgo Biloba has been used as herbal medicine to treat circulatory disorders and enhance memory. Although not all studies agree, ginkgo may be especially effective in treating dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease), as well as intermittent claudication (poor circulation in the legs). It always show promise for enhancing memory in older adults. Lab studies have shown that ginkgo improves the circulation of blood by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of blood platelets.
  • Kava Kava – Piper Methysticum is said to elevate mood, enhance well-being and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies show that kava may help treat anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders. However, there is serious concern that kava may cause liver damage. It is not clear whether the kava itself caused liver damage in a few people, or whether it was taking kava in combination with other drugs or herbs. It is also not clear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses, or only at higher doses. Some countries have taken kava off the market. It remains available in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory notice in March of 2002, regarding the “rare” but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products.
  • Saw palmetto – Serenoa Repens is used by millions of men to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. Several studies suggest that the herb is effective for treating symptoms, including frequent urination, having trouble starting or maintaining urination, and needing to urinate during the night. But not all studies agree. At least one well-conducted study found that saw palmetto was no better than placebo in relieving the signs and symptoms of BPH.


Tim Lane

Tim Lane – Herbal Medicine