Herbal medicine

If the laboratory drugs don't work, or you're keen to explore the options, you might consider the natural alternative. Herbal remedies may be easily available, but do they really work?

Picture of chamomile buds some in a tea strainer

Some people find chamomile has a calming effect

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicines are plant-based remedies, and have been in use since early civilisation in many different forms. Today, they are commonly available as tablets, tinctures, powders, teas, food supplements and extracts. Herbal medicine also plays a central role in other forms of complementary therapy, such as homeopathy, naturotherapy and also traditional Chinese medicine (which is underpinned by a philosophy that good health comes from balance – known as yin and yang) and Ayurvedic medicine (a herbal-based therapy which is based on an Indian belief system).

How does it work?

Herbalists believe that the delicate chemical make-up of each plant – or herb -based product contains certain healing properties. Unlike conventional medicine, however, no attempt is made to isolate and extract such elements. Instead, the belief is that the entire plant or herb should be used in order to preserve the healing properties. It’s worth noting that some conventional medicines are derived from herbalism, such as aspirin (from willow bark) and morphine (from poppies).

What are the benefits of herbal medicine?

Some herbal medicines have been tested, with proven results. For example, St John’s wort is recognised in the treatment of mild depression, garlic is known to reduce blood cholesterol levels, and ginger is often used to relieve feelings of nausea. Other popular herbal remedies include Echinacea to help ease cold symptoms and peppermint oil in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. People with allergies, sleep disorders and skin conditions also commonly turn to herbalism for treatment. Like any medicine, however, herbal products have the potential to produce unwanted reactions, and should be used with care. If in doubt, consult your doctor (GP).

Where’s the proof?

It is a fact that many plants contain chemical compounds that can have an effect on the body. While many herbal products have been scientifically proven to have a beneficial impact on health, many remain untested or even questionable in nature. The key is to be sure that what you’re taking is safe for your health, and only your doctor can address that.

Getting treatment

NHS herbal medicine is now available, but it’s quite limited and depends on your doctor’s view of complementary therapies. You can also check out the website for The National Institute of Medical Herbalists which offers an online facility to find a herbalist in your area.

Case study – Helena, 17

“Recently I went to see the herbalist with a variety of problems, which are all (more or less) caused by stress. She went through my health history, and then she took my pulse and blood pressure. Once this was done, she created a blend of herbal tinctures for me to take twice a day for a month, and gave me a food diary to fill out.

“She then asked me to come back in a month’s time to see how I got on. She also recommended that I eat some different foods (more nuts, and leafy greens), and encouraged me to drink more herbal teas, such as peppermint for my digestion and chamomile for the stress.

“So far, I’ve been far more chilled out, but it is still early days. I’d like to see how I feel by the end of the month.”

If you’re considering a complementary treatment or therapy for any medical condition, always consult your doctor (GP) first. This is to make sure it doesn’t conflict with any existing course of treatment you may be taking, and also to check it won’t have a negative impact on your health.

Picture of chamomile by Shutterstock.

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015