History and theory
Herbal medicine is the world’s most ancient form of medicine. Every ancient civilisation used plants for healing and in many cultures herbal knowledge was said to have been handed down from the gods.
Studies of herbs and their medicinal properties were prominent in the ancient civilisations of China, Egypt, Greece, Tibet, Persia and India. Much of this knowledge is still used today.
Around three-quarters of the world’s population, especially those in developing countries, rely on herbal medicine. Almost quarter of all modern prescription drugs, including aspirin, are derived from plant sources.
The medicinal part of the plant is harvested or extracted and then either dried for use in teas or made into ointments, powders, pills, capsules, lozenges, pessaries or liquid tinctures.
Trial and error
Traditional herbal medicine treats the whole person rather than individual symptoms, and a prescription is individually formulated to stimulate the body’s natural healing powers.
The medicinal properties of different plants have been identified by trial and error – and later through scientific investigation – over many centuries. The 16th century alchemist Paracelsus believed the appearance of a plant gave clues as to what it could be good for medicinally. This theory is known as the ‘doctrine of signatures’.
Chinese herbal medicine classifies herbs according to their taste and effect on different internal organs and acupuncture meridians. In Western herbal medicine, each medicinal plant is thought to contain ingredients that prevent side effects as well as those that cure. For this reason, Western herbalists believe it’s better to use ingredients from parts of the whole plant rather than just isolated individual ingredients, as is common in modern pharmaceuticals.
Conclusive studies have shown that individual herbal ingredients have specific physical effects – such as calming and relaxing or stimulating and warming – and that certain herbs can benefit specific conditions.
Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of different herbs for a variety of conditions. Valerian, for example, has been shown to have a relaxing effect and has successfully been used to treat people with anxiety and insomnia. Ginger, which relieves nausea, is now widely used to relieve morning and travel sickness.
For a list of the most widely and commonly used herbs and their applications, take a look at the A to Z of herbal remedies.
Consulting a practitioner
The first consultation with a herbalist usually lasts an hour. The practitioner will take your medical history and may ask about your symptoms, lifestyle, diet, work and emotional state.
The herbalist may take your blood pressure, listen to your chest and examine your eyes and ears. Occasionally, blood or urine tests are carried out. A diagnosis is then made and one or more herbs prescribed, with advice on dosage and the most appropriate way of taking them. Dietary advice is often given too.
To find a qualified practitioner, we suggest you contact one of the relevant organisations listed in Useful contacts.
Just because a herb is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Some plants are highly toxic if taken in large dosages, or may have side effects when combined with other herbs or medicines.
It’s vital that your practitioner is well trained in the effects and indications for each herb, so always ask about qualifications. If he or she trained abroad – in China, for example – it may be difficult to assess their qualifications and competence. In such cases, it’s best to use only those practitioners who are registered members of one of the professional UK associations or check the experiences of other patients. If you’re taking any prescribed conventional medication, always inform your practitioner and doctor before taking any herbal medicines.
Poor-quality herbs may contain contaminants or only small amounts of the active ingredient, so always ask your practitioner for assurances on safety and quality. He or she should be able to tell you the name of the supplier and all products should be clearly labelled in English. Ideally, they will also have a batch number. This usually means the product has been checked for quality and ensures it can be traced back to source if there are any problems.
If you’re buying your own herbs or supplements, only use reputable suppliers that carry out regular quality controls (this is usually specified in their literature or you can ask).
The standards of herbal medicine training and supplies are becoming increasingly stringent to ensure safety and quality. Many codes of practice and conduct are already in place, although at this time they’re mainly voluntary.
Conservation can be an issue. Certain oriental herbal formulations may contain animal products taken from protected species. Always ask about ingredients and refuse any animal products if you have any cause for concern.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.
First published in October 2002.