Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine, refers to the use of any plant's seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Long practiced outside of conventional medicine, herbalism is becoming more mainstream as up-to-date analysis and research show their value in the treatment and prevention of disease.
What is the history of herbal medicine?
Plants had been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. For example, ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal plant uses. Indigenous cultures (e.g., African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (e.g., Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used systematically. Scientists found that people in different parts of the globe tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
In the early 19th century, when methods of chemical analysis first became available, scientists began extracting and modifying the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds, beginning the transition from raw herbs to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of pharmaceuticals.
Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary healthcare. In the last twenty years in the United States, increasing public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in the use of herbal medicines. In Germany, roughly 600 to 700 plant-based medicines are available and are prescribed by approximately 70% of German physicians.
How do herbs work?
For most herbs, the specific ingredient that causes a therapeutic effect is not known. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and it is likely that they work together to produce the desired medicinal effect. Many factors affect how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect its components, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.
How are herbs used?
For the reasons described in the previous section, herbalists prefer using whole plants rather than extracting single components from them. Whole plant extracts have many components. These components work together to produce therapeutic effects and also to lessen the chances of side effects from any one component. Several herbs are often used together to enhance effectiveness and synergistic actions and to reduce toxicity. Herbalists must take many things into account when prescribing herbs. For example, the species and variety of the plant, the plant's habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants.
What happens during a visit to an herbalist?
When you visit an herbalist, the treatment goals are often more broad than stopping a single complaint. Herbalists aim to correct imbalances, resolve patterns of dysfunction, and treat the underlying cause of your complaint. Specific symptoms may also be treated if necessary.
A session with an herbalist typically lasts one hour. You may be physically examined and asked about your medical history and your general well-being (that is, how well you sleep, what you eat, if you have a good appetite, good digestion and elimination, how often you exercise, and what you do to relax). The herbalist might recommend one or more herbs, dietary changes, and lifestyle modifications. Because herbal medicines are slower acting than pharmaceuticals, you might be asked to return for a follow-up in two to four weeks.
What is herbal medicine good for?
Herbalists treat many conditions such as asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome, among others. Herbal preparations are best taken under the guidance of a trained professional. Be sure to consult with your doctor or an herbalist before self-treating. Some common herbs and their uses are discussed below. Please see our monographs on individual herbs for detailed descriptions of uses as well as risks, side effects, and potential interactions.