Herbal medicine, also known as botanical medicine or phytomedicine, is the practice of using herbs to improve and maintain health. Plant parts with therapeutic properties - including leaves, seeds, roots, fruits, flowers, bark and stems - are used to create herbal remedies.
Humans have been using plants for centuries to heal wounds, treat and prevent diseases and reduce pain. Today, over one-third of American adults report using herbal remedies to support their health and well-being, often in combination with prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Thousands of herbal medicine products are sold as dietary supplements in many forms, including powders, capsules, teas, and extracts.
If you are considering using herbal treatments or remedies, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider or a qualified naturopath or herbalist. Though herbal remedies are derived from plants, they can cause side effects and may interact with other supplements or medications you are taking. Read on to learn more about herbal medicine, including the history of using plants as medicine, potential benefits and risks, and what the research says.
Herbal Medicine: Modern Research Exploring an Ancient Practice
The history of herbal medicine provides centuries of anecdotal information, but the scientific study of herbal medicine is relatively new. Western (conventional) medicine is an evidence-based practice, which uses scientifically proven methods to treat symptoms and health conditions. Many Western healthcare practitioners have dismissed herbal medicine due to the lack of scientific evidence, relying on pharmaceutical drugs to treat physical and mental health conditions.
According to the World Health Organization, about 80% of the world's population uses herbal medicine to treat illnesses and maintain health. In the United States, herbal remedies have exploded in popularity in recent years.
In 1992, the U.S. The National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The NCCIH investigates and evaluates the safety of complementary and integrative health approaches, such as herbal medicine, and the role these therapies have in improving health and health care.
Compared to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), founded in 1906, NCCIH has only begun to scratch the surface of scientific research on herbal medicines. As the global demand for herbal remedies continues to grow, researchers have begun to explore the potential therapeutic properties of botanicals to establish the safety and efficacy of herbal remedies.
Evidenced-Based Herbal Medicine Remedies
While herbalists, holistic therapists and naturopaths can offer anecdotal evidence on the correct use and safety of herbal medicines, researchers are still investigating the safety and effectiveness of many popular herbal remedies.
Clinical studies investigating the benefits and risks of some popular herbal medicines have provided scientific evidence that supports some anecdotal claims. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website provides a database of herbal medicines commonly used for their healing properties. Fact sheets on each herb contain information on research findings of the herb's potential benefits and side effects, common uses, and science-backed data on how the herb may interact with other medications.
Botanical Uses in Modern Drug Development
Medicinal plants have played a key role in the development of modern medications. About 35% of pharmaceutical drugs available today are derived from botanical sources. Drugs developed from plants contain either purified medicinal plant compounds or synthetic versions of the compounds. Aspirin, for example, was developed from a compound found in the bark of willow trees. Plant drug discovery has provided many effective therapeutic medications to treat a variety of diseases and symptoms, including:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Bacterial infections
- Cardiovascular disease (e.g., high cholesterol)
Books On Evidence-Based Herbal Medicines
One of the most referenced books on evidence-based herbal medicines was written by Michale Rotblatt and Irwin Ziment and published in 2001, Evidence-Based Herbal Medicine. The book received positive reviews from the Mayo Clinic and the British Medical Association's journal, BMJ. The book contains reviews of 65 common herbal remedies, historical uses, pharmacology of each herb, and clinical trial evidence on the efficacy, dosage information and adverse effects.
Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices of Herbal Medicine is a complete handbook for medical practitioners on the use of herbal medicines. Author David Hoffman used the knowledge he gained from his 25-year herbal practice to provide detailed information on the preparations, dosages and contraindications of 150 beneficial herbs.
Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine
Cultures around the world have long-standing traditional medicine systems that depend on medicinal herbs to support human health. The most influential traditional medicine systems involving herbal medicine developed in China and India.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) & Herbalism
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses a variety of approaches to manage health issues, including herbal medicines. Chinese herbal medicines vary widely in their production, potency and quality. Nearly one in five Americans use Chinese herbal products for a variety of health concerns, ranging from respiratory infections to heart disease to mood disorders.
Single herbs may be used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine, but formulas containing a mixture of different herbs are more common. Many herbal formulas are pre-designed and meant for general use, though some herbalists and TCM practitioners will create custom formulas designed for a specific person or disease.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Safety
The safety and effectiveness of Chinese herbal remedies are difficult to assess, as quality control and safety regulations have not yet been established. Potential side effects of Chinese herbal medicines vary, depending on the herb or herbal mixture.
In herbal products containing two or more herbs, adverse side effects may occur due to interactions between each herb's active ingredients. Many Chinese herbal remedies contain an herb called ma huang (Ephedra) - a stimulant known to cause rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
What the Research Says
Chinese herbal products have been studied extensively, but many studies have been of poor quality, making it difficult to assess the effectiveness of these remedies. A recent research review found that patients with COVID-19 who were treated with a combination of Chinese herbal medicines and traditional western medicine therapies recovered more quickly than patients who simply used conventional western medicines.
According to the NCCIH, research studies have found some Chinese herbal products to be contaminated by heavy metals, pesticides, unidentified or mislabeled herbs and animal material. If you decide to try Chinese herbal medicines, it's important to work with a licensed professional who uses well-tested, high-quality herbal products.
Ayurveda & Herbalism
Ayurveda, the traditional medical system in India, takes a holistic approach to health care. Herbal remedies are central to Ayurvedic treatments and are used to maintain balance in the body, mind and spirit and prevent illness. Over 600 plants are used in Ayurvedic herbal medicine formulations, which often contain extracts of two or more different herbs.
Though the primary focus of Ayurveda is disease prevention, Ayurvedic herbal remedies can be used to treat a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. According to the NCCIH, about 240,000 Americans use Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurvedic Herbal Products Safety
Due to a lack of regulations regarding safety and quality control, it is difficult to assess the safety of all Ayurvedic herbal remedies. Several research studies have found that some Ayurvedic herbal supplements contain significant amounts of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury, that could lead to toxicity. Ayurvedic herbal products may interact with prescription and over-the-counter drugs and lead to harmful side effects.
What the Research Says
Many Ayurvedic herbal remedies have not yet been thoroughly studied, but some research suggests that Ayurveda may be beneficial for certain health conditions. A 2022 research review suggests that a range of Ayurvedic herbs may help control blood sugar levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. A 2013 clinical trial found that two Ayurvedic plant extract formulas may help improve mobility and function and reduce pain in people with knee osteoarthritis.
More research is needed to determine the effectiveness and safety of Ayurvedic herbal medicines.
Herbal Medicine Advantages
Herbal medicine has not only stood the test of time but is growing in popularity as more people turn to these natural remedies to treat diseases, manage symptoms, reduce pain and maintain optimal health.
Accessible and Affordable
In the United States, the high cost of healthcare is a significant burden for many. According to a 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, about half of U.S. adults report struggling to afford health care and prescription medications, and nearly 40% have delayed seeking treatment, skipped medications, or gone without medical care due to the high cost.
In comparison, herbal medicine is generally more affordable than conventional western medicine, and herbal remedies cost significantly less than many pharmaceutical drugs. The low cost of herbal medicine makes it far more accessible for all, no matter their income or health insurance coverage.
Can Be Used as Food and Medicine
Herbs are rich in nutrients and health-promoting properties, which makes them beneficial not only as medicine but as food. Used fresh or dried, herbs can be used to add flavor and color to foods and beverages. Research shows that herbs have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties that help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, fight off respiratory diseases and lower the risk of cancer.
May Help Control Blood Sugar Levels
Over 37 million Americans live with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes is a chronic health condition associated with high blood sugar (glucose) levels that are managed through a healthy diet. Medication (e.g., insulin). Research suggests that some herbs, such as American ginseng, cayenne, cinnamon and turmeric, may help reduce blood glucose. More information about herbs for managing diabetes can be found on the Diabetes Action Research and Education Foundation website.
May Assist in Pain Reduction
Pain, when not effectively treated, can have a detrimental effect on daily activities and overall quality of life. Chronic pain caused by inflammatory conditions such as arthritis can be difficult to live with and is often managed with over-the-counter analgesics, prescription medications, and relaxation techniques. Research suggests that herbal remedies may also offer relief --ginger, turmeric, capsaicin, willow bark, and feverfew have been shown to effectively reduce pain and inflammation.
Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicine, as with all types of medicine, has potential risks and disadvantages.
Lack of Regulation
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers herbal remedies dietary supplements and does not subject these medicines to the same testing, manufacturing and labeling standards as prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Some herbal products may contain additives or other ingredients not listed on the label, or be contaminated with other materials due to a lack of safety testing. This means that not all herbal products are created equally, and the quality can vary widely between batches, brands or manufacturers.
Potential Side Effects and Toxicity
Though herbal remedies are derived from plants, it's important to remember that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safe". Some herbs may cause negative side effects, including allergic reactions, asthma, headache, diarrhea, dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, agitation or vomiting. Some herbs can cause liver toxicity, such as kava-kava.
People who practice foraging wild herbs run the risk of misidentifying a plant. Some poisonous plants can look very similar to safe herbs growing in the wild. If poisonous plants are consumed, this can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort or death. It's always safest to grow your own herbs so you know exactly what you're consuming.
Herbal treatments can interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Many herbs can interact with prescription medications, leading to adverse reactions. It's important to discuss your medications and herbal supplements with your healthcare provider to avoid potentially harmful interactions. Formulas and mixtures of two or more herbs may also cause adverse interactions, so be sure to use herbal products under the guidance of a licensed professional.
Weighing the Advantages and Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine
Whether you want to try herbal medicine to manage a chronic health condition or simply maintain good health, there are things to keep in mind before trying herbal remedies:
- Talk with your healthcare provider or an experienced herbalist or naturopathic doctor before trying herbal remedies.
- Do not take herbal remedies if you are taking prescription medications prior to speaking with a healthcare professional.
- Carefully read the label of any herbal product you plan to use to read over the ingredients list and recommended doses. Ensure the products have a certification label, such as "USP Verified" or "ConsumerLab.com Approved Quality." Avoid products with misleading labels that promise to "cure" a specific disease.
- Herbal medicine is a complementary therapy and is not meant to replace conventional treatments you are currently taking.
Herbal medicine has stood the test of time and has much to offer in our modern society. Like many medications, herbal remedies have advantages and disadvantages. It's important to understand the potential benefits and risks of herbal medicine before you begin your healing journey with herbs. To find an herbalist near you, visit the American Herbalists Guild website, or search for a local licensed naturopath through the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.