What is Herbal Medicine? History, Uses, Types and Side Effects of Herbal Medicines

what is herbal medicine

What is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is also known as:

  • Phytotherapy
  • Phytomedicine
  • Herbalism
  • Botanical medicine

The system of herbal medicine is based on the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants and their extracts in order to heal, cure or treat a disease or illness. These treatment options include both topical and oral use of these medicines.

Herbal medicines have been used for centuries by different cultures for healing purposes. The herbal medicine can be made from any part of the plant like the leaf, flower, stem, seed, root, fruit or bark of the plant. These herbal extracts can be used to treat many types of external and internal illnesses.

The practice of Herbal Medicine is not licensed in the United States. But still many medical practitioners recommend the use of herbal remedies for many types of medical problems.


Herbalism includes:

  • Botany
  • Medicine making
  • Understanding our environment
  • Understanding the connection between plants and people
  • How to grow, harvest, store, use and assess plant medicines

A herbalist is a person trained in herbal/plant medicine having clinical knowledge and a high degree of diagnosis. Herbalists consider a natural methodology of treatment and have been around for several years.

Treatment of different types of chronic and acute diseases has been done for centuries with the help of herbs and plants. Till date, herbal medicine is the most common form of medicine used today. The World Health Organization reports that 80 % of the people worldwide use or depend to some extent on these plant/herbal medicines for their basic health concerns. According to their report, the use of plant-based medicines is so common that most people don’t even know they are using them.

For example, we add many common herbs and spices to our daily diet and the food we cook every day. These herbs or spices provide us with many benefits like making digestion easier and much more. Some people know that dock leaves will make a nettle sting better and that applying vinegar on a wasp sting will help the pain.

Herbal Plants Can Be Easily Found

herbal plants

Most of these plants or medicinal herbs used are easily found in the wild. They can be easily collected and used. Herbalists have been collecting plants used as medicine from the forests and fields. Some herbs and spices are also imported from other parts of the world. The art of Herbal medicine has been passed down from generation to generation and from teacher to student.

Herbal medicine may be used to work with physical, emotional and energetic or spiritual ailments. The medicines can also be used constitutionally, working with the bodily and personality traits of the individual.

Herbal medicine in the form of herbs and spices has been used for ages in food by different cultures around the world. Adding these herbs and spices to your food is one of the easiest ways to get the healing benefits from these herbs and spices. For instance, the spice turmeric is used commonly in India in most of their foods. This is one of the reasons why older people in India have a very low ratio of getting Alzheimer’s disease in the world.

History of Herbal Medicine

history of herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is one of the oldest forms of medicine known to mankind. It is being used by ancient herbalists since ages. Herbs were used in most traditional cultures and influenced many systems of medicine, including traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Native and Indigenous American, and Australian, as well as conventional medicine.

Written records of Egyptian, Roman, Persian and Hebrew history show that plants were used to heal nearly all known diseases. Herbal medicine and herbal awareness spread to Europe from the Middle East during the crusades. Several modern medications used these days originated from trees, shrubs or herbs.

Plants are An Amazing wealth of healing

There are currently approximately 400,000 species of plants known, but only very few of them have been studied or used. Most researchers think that there are many plants whose healing powers are not yet recognized. Pharmaceutical companies and others are actively studying the ability of plants to produce new antibiotics and medical drugs.

How does herbal medicine work?

Herbs contain numerous chemicals (constituents) that have a particular type of biological activity. Herbs work in the same way as many drug preparations. Some pharmaceutical drugs are still obtained from plants. One such example is of quinine, a medicine used for malaria. Quinine is derived from the cinchona tree’s bark and another drug morphine used as a pain killer is extracted from the poppy of the opium plant.

Western herbalists suggest that herbs should be used in their whole form so that all the ingredients contained in the plant are utilized properly. Herbalists believe that herbal medicine and remedies are most helpful in treating chronic and long term diseases instead of acute ones. In fact, there are no herbal remedies or treatments that work as a quick fix.

Herbalists often claim that herbs can cure certain diseases very well without any unwanted side effects that are normally seen in conventional prescription drugs. However, it should be noted that some herbs can be very powerful and can cause serious adverse effects if used in the wrong way.

Many herbs can also affect how the body reacts to the effects of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. The effects of these prescription medicines increase or decrease by these herbs. St John’s wort, for example, may clash with birth control drugs. Gingko Biloba can increase the risk of bleeding with anticoagulants.

Consult a herbalist

Before using herbal medicines, you should always consult a professional herbalist. A Herbalist is trained to combine medications in order to address specific conditions and symptoms. They treat the person as a whole, using medicines from whole plants in order to stimulate the healing power of the body. Herbs are selected according to the needs of every person and according to the disease or condition they are being treated for.

Types of Herbal Remediesuses of herbal medicine

Herbal remedies are available in many different varieties. They are available for both topical and oral use.

Herbal remedies for Internal or oral use include:

  • Liquid herb extracts
  • Teas
  • Powders
  • Capsules
  • Tablets
  • Oils

Herbal remedies for external or topical use include:

  • Baths
  • Compresses
  • Douches
  • Poultices and plasters
  • Oils
  • Ointments
  • Salves
  • Wraps

Uses of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is used for all types of medical conditions. Treatment options are different according to each and every person.

Some Common conditions herbalists treat are:

  • Skin problems such as psoriasis, acne and eczema
  • Digestive problems such as peptic ulcer, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion and heartburn
  • Heart and circulatory conditions such as angina, high blood pressure, varicose veins and ulcers
  • Gynaecological disorders such as premenstrual syndrome and menopausal problems
  • Arthritis
  • Insomnia
  • Stress and nervous related conditions
  • Headaches and migraine
  • Upper respiratory tract infections
  • Colds and flu
  • Allergic responses such as hay fever and asthma

Are There Any Side Effects of Herbal Medicine?

Yes. When taking any medication, you should always consult with both your herbalist and medical doctor. There may be some interactions between herbal and conventional medicines that have to be looked into.

You should be really cautious when using herbal and conventional medicine together. Because some of the herbal medicines may have the same effect as with the prescription or OTC medication you are taking.

It is best to avoid taking any herbs during pregnancy, especially the first trimester, unless you’re knowledgeable practitioner suggests so.

Apart from some herbs that are useful for production of breast milk, breast feeding women should avoid taking herbal medicines unless a doctor or herbalist recommends so.

Not all herbal medicines are safe for children as they are for adults. Always consult your herbalist before giving any herbal medicine to your child.


Whenever you visit a herbalist for treatment, don’t forget to tell them what conventional medicines you are taking. Similarly, you should also tell your medical doctor if you are planning to start the treatment of herbal medicine.



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