Herbal medicine is a complementary therapy that uses plants or plant extracts to treat illness. There are numerous herbal products available that claim to treat a wide range of problems, from depression to colds and flu.
Many well-established medicines come from plants. For example morphine comes from poppies, aspirin from willow bark, and digoxin (a treatment for an irregular heart beat) from foxgloves.
Traditional herbal medicine is just one of the many different approaches to using plants as remedies. Others include phytotherapy and Chinese herbal medicine. Traditional herbal medicine has been used in Britain for centuries and it remains popular, even in the era of scientific medicine and modern pharmaceuticals.
Like many complementary therapies, herbal medicine aims to be holistic - it aims to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms, and to encourage the body to heal itself. Herbal practitioners believe that the delicate chemical balance of the whole herb is needed for greatest effect and to reduce potential side-effects. Different parts of the same plant, such as the flowers or seeds, can have very different actions. Herbal medicine is not about isolating the active ingredients from a plant which is the way that conventional medicines are often derived.
There are herbal medicines available that claim to treat almost any common complaint, but there is usually limited scientific evidence that these work. Some herbal treatments are more established, and have undergone some clinical testing.
St John's wort, for the treatment of mild to moderate depression,
black cohosh, for menopausal symptoms,
echinacea, to reduce the symptoms of colds,
garlic, to reduce blood cholesterol levels and potentially lower the risk of heart disease,
ginger, to relieve nausea and vomiting,
ginkgo biloba, to improve mental performance in people with Alzheimer's disease,
hawthorn berries, for mild heart failure,
horse chestnut, for chronic venous insufficiency,
saw palmetto, for enlarged prostate.
However, the herbal medicines that are not listed may also be effective. The evidence for these is conflicting and further studies are needed.
Although some herbal medicines, such as the ones listed above, may be helpful for certain problems, this does not necessarily mean they are safe in all situations. They should not be used during pregnancy.
Like any medicine, herbal remedies can have side-effects and may interact with other drugs. There have even been reports of fatal toxic effects with some herbal products, although this is rare with products that originate in the UK. At present, most herbal products fall outside of the regulation of medicines, which means you can't be sure whether there is evidence that a herbal product works, what it contains and in what concentration, or whether it was manufactured properly. Planned legislation should introduce a system of recognising traditional herbal medicines, with new regulatory controls.
If you have heart disease such as angina, high blood pressure or glaucoma, herbal treatments should not be taken without supervision from a trained herbalist or a doctor. There are also conditions that are not suitable for treatment by a herbalist, such as life-threatening illnesses, epilepsy or type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes.
Should you use it?
A common-sense approach recognises that herbal remedies, including those listed above, have been widely used for many years and may be useful for self-treating minor illnesses. However, natural does not mean harmless and care should be taken not to exceed the doses that are traditionally recommended.
An associated risk is that by treating symptoms that are signals of a serious condition with herbal remedies, time is lost in giving tried and tested mainstream medicines.
Herbal remedies for self-treatment are available as tablets, capsules, ointments and creams, and are on sale in health food shops, pharmacies and even supermarkets. For more serious health complaints, you may want to see a trained herbalist. While not a state regulated profession (like nursing or medicine), members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH), have followed three to five years of structured study and can advise on the safety and suitability of herbs. It is particularly important to be cautious about taking herbs if you are pregnant or breast feeding.
Consult a doctor and/or herbal practitioner, before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Some herbal medicine practitioners work alongside doctors, and some GPs are willing to refer their patients for a herbal medicine consultation.
Consultation with a herbalist
The first consultation with a herbal therapist will probably last at least an hour, during which time he or she will ask detailed questions about general health, medical and family history, lifestyle and emotional state.
Treatment may include advice about diet and lifestyle as well as herbal medicine. The medicines prescribed may well be made up of several different herbs, and will be tailored to individual needs, as the herbalist sees them. They can come in a wide range of formulations - including syrups, tinctures, lotions, inhalations, gargles and washes.
The herbalist may make a follow-up appointment after two weeks, and then monthly, but this depends on the condition being treated and the general state of health.
Several other systems of medicine use herbal remedies as a main part of treatment, including aromatherapy, Hindu Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese herbal medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine is the traditional medicine of India and dates back to 2000 BC. Herbal medicine forms just one part of the Ayurvedic system and is used - along with yoga, massage, diet and meditation - to balance the body and increase "prana", or life energy.