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Herbal Medicine

Discover the world of herbal medicine.

Many plants have medicinal properties and can be used in herbal medicines. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Many plants have medicinal properties and can be used in herbal medicines.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine uses flowers, berries, leaves, roots or seeds for medicinal purposes. Herbal supplements consist of a single herb or several herbs combined to enhance the effectiveness and synergistic actions. Health care providers consider many things before recommending herbs as a course of treatment, such as effectiveness, side effects and potential interactions with other medications. Herbal medicine may not be appropriate treatment for some patients so it is important to consult a physician prior to beginning treatment.

History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is an ancient form of medicine, and its use dates back 60,000 years to Neanderthal man. Ancient civilizations used herbs as an important part of medicinal treatment. Hippocrates, also known as the "Father of Medicine," was the first famous herbalist, and he stressed nature's importance in healing. Herbal medicine continued to grow and thrive due to its rich folk knowledge and the unpleasantness of orthodox remedies. In the early 19th century, scientists began the extraction and modification of the active ingredients in plants through chemical analysis. Chemists later began making synthetic pharmaceuticals instead, resulting in a decline of herbal medicine. Today, herbal medicine is based on a combination of its long history of use and modern scientific research. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, public dissatisfaction with the high cost of prescription medications and an interest in natural, organic remedies has resulted in a recent increase in the use of herbal medicines.

Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplements are herbs taken in the form of dietary supplements. Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994, which identified herbal supplements as dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are taken by mouth and not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Herbal medicine uses these supplements to treat migraines, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, eczema and other conditions. The specific ingredient in each herb that causes the medicinal effect is unknown. Since whole herbs contain many ingredients, the medicinal effect may be the result of these ingredients working together.


Echinacea is one of the most commonly used herbal supplements. It is believed to stimulate the immune system, aiding in the treatment and prevention of the common cold, flu and other respiratory infections. There have been conflicting results in studies of the effectiveness of echinacea and further well-designed studies are needed.


Ginkgo biloba is another top selling herbal supplement and has been used for thousands of years. Ginkgo has been used to treat numerous conditions, such as fatigue, bronchitis, asthma and tinnitus (ringing in the ears), but is best known for its use to improve memory. It is also thought to improve awareness, judgment and social function in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Saw Palmetto

Saw palmetto is used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) in men. Some studies suggest mild-to-moderate improvement in urinary symptoms of BPH; however, a study of men with moderate-to-severe BPH showed no improvement. Saw palmetto is also used for bladder disorders, chronic pelvic pain, decreased sex drive, hormone imbalances and hair loss.


Kava is frequently used to treat insomnia, anxiety and menopausal symptoms today. Scientific studies have shown that kava is effective in the management of anxiety, but the health risks outweigh the possible benefits. In 2002, the FDA reported that kava supplements were linked to a risk of severe liver damage, including hepatitis and liver failure. Kava has also been used to treat asthma and urinary tract infections; however, it is not a proven therapy for these conditions.


Ephedra has been used for over 5,000 years to treat colds, flu, fever, headaches, wheezing, asthma and nasal congestion; but more recently, it became a popular ingredient in dietary supplements used for increased energy, weight loss and enhanced athletic performance. According to the FDA, ephedra has only been proven effective for short-term weight loss and increases the risk of stroke and heart problems. In 2004, the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra in the United States.

St. John's Wort

Although it has been used for centuries to treat mental conditions, St. John's wort has gained popularity as a natural antidepressant. How it works is unknown, but studies suggest that it might reduce levels of a protein involved in the functioning of the immune system or prevent nerve cells in the brain from reabsorbing serotonin. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the effectiveness of St. John's wort appears to be minimal for major depression; however, it is useful for the treatment of milder forms of depression. It is important that patients consult a physician before beginning treatment with St. John's wort since serious interactions with prescription drugs as well as other herbs and supplements may occur. Antidepressants, birth control pills and many prescription medications, such as cyclosporine, digoxin and warfarin, may be affected by the use of St. John's wort.

Safety of Herbal Medicine

Although many herbal supplements are labeled as "natural," it does not necessarily mean that they are safe. The safety of herbal supplements varies depending on the chemical makeup, form of preparation and dosage. The manufacturer is required to ensure that its products are safe, but the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before reaching the consumer. Once marketed, the FDA has the responsibility of proving the product unsafe so that it may then restrict or remove it from the marketplace. Manufacturers are not required to report injuries or illnesses related to their product to the FDA.

Herbal supplements may be unsafe for patients with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and liver problems, and may pose an increased risk for the elderly. Patients undergoing surgery should discontinue use of herbal supplements at least two weeks prior to avoid problems with anesthesia and bleeding. Herbal supplements can change the way the body processes over-the-counter and prescription medications. Patients taking drugs that treat diabetes, cancer and psychiatric problems, to name a few, should be extremely cautious. Patients should inform their physician of all medications before beginning treatment with herbal supplements.

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