What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine is often referred to as botanical medicine, traditional medicine (TM) or phytomedicine, which refers to the medicinal part of plants, including the bark, berries, flowers, leaves, root, seeds, and stems.  Herbalism, as it has been called by traditional practitioners such as Native Americans and Chinese Medical Practitioners, has been used to treat medical conditions and symptoms for thousands of years.

Traditional Medicine (TM) differs from herbal medicine slightly as it refers to health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs that incorporate more than just the plant as a whole.  TM incorporates plant, animal and mineral based medicines along with spiritual and manual therapies, including exercise, applied singularly, or in combination, to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses and to maintain well-being.

The first written records of herbs being used as medicines dates back more than 5,000 years to the Sumerians, which occupied Mesopotamia, presently known as Iraq.  Archeologists have discovered the herbal medicines caraway and thyme scribed on clay tablets!

The Chinese have been using herbal medicines for more than 5,000 years!  Ancient papyrus are writings that we still reference today as a source of valuable historical herbal information, providing a wealth of information to us as we seek to better understand herbs and how to use them safely.  Chinese herbalism differs from western herbalism, but like western herbal medicine (practiced in the USA), practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine is an art that requires years of study to master.  Chi’en Nung (Shen Nong), a Chinese Emperor, compiled more than 300 medicinal plants into a book called PenTaso.  Although several ancient pharmocopeia still exist today, a book by physician Li Shinh-chen, written during the 16th century, described more than 2,000 herbs and 10,000 herbal remedies.  Current day Chinese account for 30-50% of the total herbal medicine consumed.

Vedas, a composition of sacred writings by Indian medicine practitioners dates as far back as the 2nd century and is commonly referred to as Ayurvedic medicine, which is still practiced today.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

~ Hippocrates, father of medicine

Ancient Greece was greatly influenced by Babylonia (Mesopotamia), Egypt, India and China.  The Greek physician of the Age of Pericles, and the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine.  He has been called the “Father of Modern Medicine” and was deeply connected with herbs.  He is recognized for his lasting contributions to the field of medicine.

hippocrates

“It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”

~ Hippocrates, father of medicine

Indigenous cultures, such as African and Native Americans, used herbs in their healing rituals.  Through research, we have found that many people, regardless of what part of the world they are from, use the same or similar plants for the same purpose!

We’re blessed during day and age to have the advantages of modern science to chemically analyze medicinal plants and their constituents and conduct clinical trials to assure their safety.  Chemical analysis has been available to us since the early 19th century.  Many chemists use analysis to extract active ingredients from plants, unfortunately, modify them in a way that allows a synthetic “copy” of that constituent so that it may be converted into a “drug”.  This “copying” of herbs is extremely common and unfortunate as it may seem “common sense” that the herb in it’s most raw form was created in a specific manner to be used perfectly by the body.  Regardless, to this day, more than a quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.

“In Africa, up to 80% of the population uses traditional medicine for primary health care.”

~ World Health Organization (WHO),

Increasing the use of herbal medicines today

  • Africa
    • World Health Organization (WHO) estimated 80% of people rely on herbal medicines for their primary care
  •  China
    • Consume 30-50% of the total herbal medicines consumed world-wide
  • Gana, Mali, Nigeria and Zambia
    • Use herbal medicines as the first line treatment for 60% of children with high fevers resulting from malaria
  • Europe, North America, and other industrialized regions
    • Over 50% of the population have used complementary alternative medicines (CAM) at least once
  • AIDS
    • San Francisco, London, and South Africa
    • 75% of people living with HIV/AIDS use TM/CAM
  • Canada
    • 70% of the population have used herbal medicine at least once
  • Germany
    • 90% of the population have used herbal medicine at some point in their life
    • Doctors undergoing special training in natural remedy medicine has doubled to 10,800 between 1995-2000
    • 600-700 plant-based medicines are available and prescribed by 70% of German physicians
  • United States of America
    • 158 million adults use complementary alternative medicines
    • $17 billion was spent on traditional remedies in 2000
    • In the past 20 years, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications combines with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in herbal medicine use
  • Global Market
    • $60 billion spent annually on herbal medicines
    • growing steadily

How do herbs work?

Herbal medicines are plant products.  They are affected by temperature, water, climate, and availability.  The ecosystem surrounding the herb’s natural habitat helps to design the perfect plant!  Herbs that are ‘abandoned’ by our standards tend to be more potent, containing the highest levels of bioavailable compounds versus herbs that could be traditionally grown in a garden where they’re exposed to ambient light, excellent soil and water.  These ‘neglected’ herbs battle against the hardest of times, environments, and temperatures, proving that they are absolutely the strongest species of the surviving plant!  This “survival of the fittest” confirms the ideas that Freud thought with humanity; that only those who survived the toughest of times would procure to the next generation.  Wildcrafted plants are definitely a contender in this competition!

How do you use herbs?

Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which means that herbal supplements, unlike prescription drugs, can be sold without being tested to prove they are safe and effective.  This may sound troublesome, however, herbal supplements must be made according to good manufacturing practices (GMP).  Think about it from an herbalist’s perspective:  herbalists in general don’t want the government to intervene and place requirements on herbal supplements for fear that the “natural” products would be outlawed in order to sell pharmaceuticals that profit big companies.

The most commonly used herbal supplements in the U.S. include:

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
  • Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species)
    • May improve the body’s natural immunity
    • One of the most commonly used herbal products
    • A review of 14 clinical studies examining the effect of echinacea on the incidence and duration of the common cold found that echinacea supplements decreased the odds of getting a cold by 58% and shortened the duration of a cold by 1.4 days
    • Can interact with certain medication and may not be right for people with certain conditions, for example:
      • Allergies (speak with an herbalist)
      • Autoimmune disorders (speak with an herbalist), herb must be cycled (take for 6 weeks, off for 6 weeks)
  • Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
    • Caution should be use with individuals who have a known seizure disorder
    • Caution should be used with individuals who take blood thinning pharmaceuticals
  • Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
    • May increase bleeding
  • Garlic (Allium sativum)
    • May increase bleeding
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
    • May increase bleeding
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
    • Used in traditional medicine to treat circulatory disorders and enhance memory
    • Ginkgo may be effective in treating dementia (including Alzheimer disease)
    • Ginkgo may be effective in treating intermittent claudication (poor circulation in the legs)
    • Ginkgo enhances memory in older adults
    • Laboratory studies show ginkgo improves blood circulation by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of blood platelets
    • Ginkgo may also increase the effect of some blood thinning medications, including aspirin
    • People taking blood thinners should seek the advice of a qualified herbalist prior to using ginkgo
    • People with a history of seizures should seek the advice of an herbalist before using ginkgo
    • People with fertility issues should seek the advice of an herbalist before using ginkgo
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
  • Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
    • Used by more than 2 million men in the United States for the treatment of  a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
      • Several studies suggest Saw palmetto is effective for treating the symptoms, including frequent urination, trouble starting or maintaining urination, and urge to urinate in the middle of the night
  • St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
    • Well known for its antidepressant effects
    • Most studies have shown that St. John’s wort may be an effective treatment for mild-to-moderate depression
    • Fewer side effects than most other prescription antidepressants
    • Herb interacts with a wide variety of medications, including:
      • birth control pills (BCP)
    • Can cause skin sensitivity
    • May cause an allergic reaction, stomach upset, fatigue, and restlessness
    • Clinical studies have found that St. John’s wort may cause certain pharmaceuticals to work more powerfully.  These pharmaceuticals include:
      • Antidepressant Medications
      • Asthma drugs
      • Birth Control Pills (BCP)
      • Protease inhibitors for HIV
      • Warfarin (Coumadin)
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
    • Safe and gentle
    • Commonly recommended as an alternative to commonly prescribed sleep medications
    • Unlike many prescription sleeping pills, valerian may have fewer side effects, such as morning drowsiness
    • Valerian does interact with some medications, particularly:
      • psychiatric medications
    • May increase drowsiness in some people
    • May have an inverse reaction and increase stimulation in some sensitive individuals instead of causing drowsiness

Using herbs in conjunction together have proved successful over the eons of herbal medicine.  Practitioners often use herbs together because the combination is usually more effective than taking an herb alone.  As healthcare providers, we take into account many factors, including the herb, species, variety, habitat, growth period, process, storage, and finally the contaminants, which are found during testing of the herbs.  Contaminants are a serious matter that should be considered anytime you are consuming any product, but especially an herb that is being taken in a concentrated form.  Contaminants can be pesticides, herbicides, germicides, etc., or even genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

What is herbal medicine good for?

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
  • Eczema (and other skin conditions)
  • Fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Flu (and other seasonal illnesses)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Menopause
  • Migraine
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Using herbal medicines at the same time as prescription medications can be dangerous!  It’s important to consult with a qualified herbalist who is able to engage with your prescribing physician to assure your safety.  If your physician is unwilling to speak with your herbalist, perhaps you should consider the reasons.  Most likely this is caused by a fear of the unknown.  This is actually quite common, but you should know that standing your ground and asking your physician to engage with the herbalist will prove to be a wonderful expansion to your medical regime!  Herbalists want to engage with primary care physicians, as their training is to work with the physicians to achieve the best plan for managing your healthcare.

Although many herbal supplements may seem easy to navigate, it is important to speak with an herbalist about your herbal needs as some herbs may interact with prescription medications you may be taking.

Are there experts in herbal medicine?

Great news!  There are experts in herbal medicine.  The best news may be that some professionals are more than willing to consult with your primary care physician to assure you have the best care possible.  Herbalists, Chiropractic Doctors, Naturopaths, pharmacists, Medical Doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine providers (including Acupuncturists) are trained in 4 year, (post-graduate) degrees specific to your needs. Many physicians and doctors of advanced medicine courses are trained in pathology, microbiology, pharmacology and surgery.  Herbalists, Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners, and Aromatherapists use herbs to counter illnesses and balance the body’s natural healing process.  These practitioners believe that the body is constantly trying to achieve homeostasis, a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.  Many practitioners may use herbal remedies and essential oils to achieve homeostasis.

How can I find a qualified herbalist in my area?

Because herbalism is not regulated, many herbalists exist that are not registered.  This does not mean they're not competent, it just means that they did not seek registration.  Many experienced herbalists are available to work with clients and address a number of medical issues.  

For additional information, or to locate a registered herbalist in your area, you may contact the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) site at:

Safety Considerations

  • Kava kava (Piper methysticum)
    • Elevates mood
    • Enhances well-being and contentment
    • Promotes relaxation
    • Several studies show that kava may help treat anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders.
    • Kava may cause liver damage.  This is extremely controversial as the studies are not clear whether the kava is responsible for liver damage or whether it was because the subjects were taking kava in conjunction with other pharmaceuticals at the time of diagnosis
    • Some controversial arguments have caused kava to be withdrawn from the market, however, it remains available in the US, however, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a consumer advisory in March 2002 regarding the “rare” but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products
    • Is unclear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses, or only at higher doses
  • Herbs imported from some Asian countries
    • Some herbal supplements may contain high levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury.  Because of this, it is important to develop a good relationship with your herbalist to assure they import their herbs from reputable sources and offer testing of their products to assure quality
  • Cancer patients should exercise caution with some herbal medicines
    • As with any normal recommendation for cancer patients, caution should always be used when supplementing with herbs while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.  Please request that your qualified herbalist and physician work together in your wellness regime
  • Herbal Medicines don’t always “replace” pharmaceuticals
    • It is dangerous for a patient who has been placed on a pharmaceutical regime to suddenly quit and start taking herbs.  Some herbs interact with pharmaceuticals and some herbs can increase or decrease the concentration of pharmaceutical that remains in your body, thus making the liver work extra hard to detoxify the medication.  When medicines linger in the system, unintentional effects may result.  If you are considering making a switch from pharmaceuticals to herbs, please assure that you do the following:
      • Speak with your physician and express your concerns
      • Speak with a qualified herbalist with experience in the area you are seeking to modify
      • Encourage your physician and herbalist to work together on a plan that will be best suited to your specific need
      • Follow the instructions of the practitioners and if necessary, obtain all lab work as requested
      • Be honest with your practitioners.  If something isn’t going well, alert them immediately so they’re able to make adjustments to your care plan, if necessary
      • Keep a journal.  This is an essential tool that you can use to reflect on your mood, energy level, lab work, dietary intake and output