What is herbal medicine, and what are its benefits?

Published by Health Professional

on Saturday, March 25th 2023

Herbal MedicineHolistic Medicine

Herbal medicine, also known as botanical medicine, is a type of complementary and alternative medicine that uses natural compounds derived from plants’ leaves, bark, roots, seeds, or flowers for medicinal purposes. 

Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years, even before the invention of conventional medicine. It has gained popularity in recent years, with many people preferring herbal medicines to some doctor-prescribed medications.

This article outlines the different types of herbal medicines, their uses, safety precautions, and when to contact a doctor.

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicines are natural botanical products derived from plants that people may use to treat and prevent diseases. They are part of a category of treatments called complementary and alternative medicine. 

Currently, thousands of herbal medicine products are available over the counter in the United States.

Research from a focus-group study suggests that people may use herbal medicine because they are dissatisfied with conventional medicine. They may also use herbal medicines to treat mild and moderate conditions or to start treatment before taking conventional medicine. 

Other common uses include boosting the immune system, increasing energy, losing weight, enhancing mood, and improving sleep.

However, a 2017 Journal of Patient Experience report notes that factors associated with using herbal medicine include age over 70, educational qualifications above high school, over-the-counter medication use, and mail-order pharmacy use.

The World Health Organization estimates that 88% of countries use herbal medicine, noting that 40% of pharmaceutical drugs and landmark medications, including aspirin and artemisinin, originated from herbal medicine.

How to take herbal supplements

How a person takes herbal supplements depends on the form. They are available as tablets, capsules, teas, powders, extracts, and fresh or dried plants.

One can take herbal supplements by swallowing them as pills, powders, or tinctures, applying them to the skin as gels and lotions, adding them to bathwater, or drinking them as teas.

Dosages for some herbal supplements may be challenging to get right. Many factors can affect the quality of herbal supplements, including growing conditions, age, and plant preparation

.

As a result, there is no standardized way to provide a correct dosage. If a person considers taking an herbal supplement, they should avoid self-prescribing and discuss it with a doctor first.

The doctor will ask questions about a person’s health condition and determine the best dosage for the desired pharmacological effect.

Because conventional medical doctors may not have received much education regarding herbal medicine, a person may instead want to consult a licensed naturopathic doctor, a licensed acupuncturist, or another qualified herbal medicine practitioner.

Using herbal medicine safely

A person should talk with a doctor before taking herbal medicine. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns that supplements can increase or decrease prescription and OTC drugs’ effects and side effects. Doctors can advise people about drug interactions they need to be careful of.

Safe use of herbal medicine also includes following label instructions carefully, taking only the recommended dosage, and stopping an herbal supplement if it is ineffective.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that taking herbal medicine may not be suitable for a person if they are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking other prescription or OTC medications, over age 65, under age 18, or having surgery.

The NHS also notes that anyone taking herbal medicine should disclose it to their doctor before surgery. This is because some herbal medicines may interact with anesthesia drugs and affect blood pressure and blood clotting during and after surgery.

Table of herbal supplements

Some people use herbal supplements to treat specific symptoms, but there is not much formal research. The table below lists some herbal supplements and conditions they may benefit from.

Using supplements can be unsafe for people who have certain health conditions or take medications. Breastfeeding or pregnant people may want to avoid herbal supplements because there is little research on their effects.

Always consult a doctor before taking herbal supplements.

Herbal supplementWhat might it help?Precautions and potential side effects
aloe vera• acne• skin injuries, such as burns• psoriasis• digestive problems• Topical use may cause burning, itching, and eczema.• Oral aloe latex use may cause abdominal pain and cramping.• Oral aloe leaf extract may increase acute hepatitis risk.
black cohoshmenopause symptoms• may cause stomach upset, cramping, headache, rash, vaginal spotting, and weight gain• may lead to liver damage
echinaceacommon cold preventionmay cause nausea or stomach pain
garlichigh cholesterol• Oral supplements may increase the risk of bleeding so that they may be unsafe for people taking anticoagulants, such as warfarin, and those needing surgery.• may interact with saquinavir, a drug used to treat HIV
ginkgo• age-related dementia• schizophrenia• anxiety• eye health• peripheral artery disease• premenstrual syndrome• may cause headache, stomach upset, dizziness, palpitations, constipation, and skin reactions• may increase the risk of bleeding
ginger• mild stomach upset• nausea from pregnancy and chemotherapy• menstrual crampsmay cause abdominal discomfort, heartburn, diarrhea, and mouth and throat irritation, particularly in large doses
hawthorn• low blood pressure• anxiety• kidney issues• heart disease• digestion• may cause dizziness, nausea, and digestive symptoms• may interact in a harmful way with heart medications
licorice root• digestive symptoms• atopic dermatitis• sore throat• unsuitable for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, or kidney disease• may increase blood pressure and decrease potassium levels• in large doses, may cause premature birth and infant health problems after birth
milk thistle• hepatitis• type 2 diabetes• may cause digestive issues• may cause allergic reactions in people allergic to marigold, chamomile, or daisies
passionflower• sleep problems• anxiety• may cause drowsiness, confusion, and uncoordinated movement• unsuitable for use during pregnancy, as it may induce contractions
peppermint oil• irritable bowel syndrome• abdominal pain• indigestion• tension headaches• cracked nipples• may cause nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, and dry mouth• may cause skin rashes and irritation if a person uses it topically
saw palmettobenign prostatic hyperplasiamay cause digestive symptoms or headache
soy• high cholesterol• menopausal hot flashes• high blood pressure• bone health• may cause constipation or diarrhea• may affect thyroid function in people with iron deficiency
turmeric• digestive issues• bone health• may cause liver injury• may cause mild dermatitis and stomach upset
valerian• menopause symptoms• anxiety• sleep problemsmay cause headache, stomach upset, excitability, uneasiness, and heart issues

Supplements

Supplements are a form of herbal medicine that people can take to enhance their overall health or to address specific health concerns. These supplements are available in various forms, including pills, capsules, powders, and liquids. Some of the most popular herbal supplements include:

  1. Echinacea: Echinacea is commonly used to boost the immune system and to treat cold and flu symptoms.
  2. St. John’s Wort: St. John’s Wort is often used to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  3. Ginseng: Ginseng enhances energy levels, reduces stress, and improves cognitive function.
  4. Milk Thistle: Milk Thistle is used to support liver function and to detoxify the body.
  5. Ginkgo Biloba: Ginkgo Biloba improves memory and cognitive function.
  6. Saw Palmetto: Saw Palmetto is commonly used to treat prostate problems in men.

While herbal supplements can offer many potential health benefits, it is important to remember that the FDA does not regulate them like prescription and over-the-counter medications. As a result, the quality and safety of these supplements can vary widely.

FAQs

Is herbal medicine safe?

  1. Herbal medicine can be safe when used appropriately and under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider. 

However, herbal supplements can have side effects like any medication and may interact with other medications.

Can herbal medicine cure diseases?

  1. Herbal medicine is often used as a complementary therapy to conventional medicine, but it is not intended to cure diseases alone.

How long does it take for herbal supplements to work?

  1. The effectiveness of herbal supplements can vary depending on the individual and the specific supplement used. Some supplements may take weeks or months to produce noticeable effects.

Can herbal supplements be taken with prescription medications?

  1. Herbal supplements can interact with prescription medications, so talking to a doctor or pharmacist before taking them is important.

Where can I buy herbal supplements?

  1. Herbal supplements can be purchased at health food stores, drug stores, and online retailers.

Contacting a doctor

If you are considering taking herbal supplements, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider first. They can help you determine if the supplements are appropriate for your needs and can advise you on safe dosages and potential interactions with other medications.

Outlook

Herbal medicine can offer many potential health benefits, but it is important to approach these supplements cautiously. 

You can safely incorporate herbal medicine into your overall wellness plan by working with a qualified healthcare provider and following recommended dosages and safety precautions.

Summary

Herbal medicine is a natural medicine that uses plants and plant extracts to treat and prevent illness. Herbal supplements are a form of herbal medicine that can be taken in various forms, including pills, capsules, and teas. 

While herbal supplements can offer many potential health benefits, it is important to use them safely and under the guidance of a healthcare provider. 

You can safely incorporate herbal medicine into your overall wellness plan by following recommended dosages and safety precautions.