Does herbal medicine work?

Many old wives’ tales ascribe remarkable medicinal properties to everyday herbs and flowers. But there’s a reason some have persisted ­– sometimes these remedies really do work, and are clinically proven.

Here are nine everyday plants that you might find growing in your garden and the science behind their health benefits:

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

One of the most widely-used herbal remedies, and popular for thousands of years, chamomile has been used as a treatment for everything from bruises to fevers.

A relative of the common daisy, chamomile is rich in organic chemical compounds known as terpenoids and flavonoids, which have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Experiments have shown they can help with gastrointestinal complaints and boost heart health.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Originally from Mexico and great for spicing up your dinner, chili is also effective in treating pain and boosting the immune system.

These peppers are high in antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful free radical cells in your body (left unchecked they can cause damage to your tissue).

Additionally, the active ingredient in chilies that makes them hot – capsaicin – can help treat muscle and joint pain.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

So named because it usually flowers around the feast of St John in late June (‘wort’ is from the Old English wyrt, meaning root), St John’s Wort has been included in traditional medicine stretching back to the ancient Greeks. Known for its calming effects, it contains two active substances, hypericin and hyperforin, that are antidepressants and can help reduce anxiety. Hyperforin is also an anti-bacterial, which can help reduce inflammation.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

For centuries ginger has been recommended as a remedy against nausea, particularly for those suffering from pregnancy-related sickness. And there is scientific evidence behind this: ginger not only has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but contains a substance known as gingerols, which helps prevent vomiting.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

A classic ingredient in many traditional European dishes, sage also has a long history as a natural herbal remedy.

Sage tea was such a popular treatment for sore throats and stomach pains that it spread from the Mediterranean all the way to China.

A member of the mint family, sage is rich in essential oils and flavonal glycosides that not only have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties but can also reduce glucose levels.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Caraway seeds are used in a variety of dishes around the world, from casseroles to breads to desserts, and for that you have Finland to thank: it produces 28% of the world’s caraway exports.

Caraway seeds contain essential oils and flavonoids that can ease the digestion of fatty foods and have an antispasmodic effect reducing gas, abdominal cramps and bloating.

Caraway also has anti-microbial effects, thus inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Famous as the national flower of Scotland, this spiky plant has now spread around the world. It contains the compound silymarin, which protects cells from damage, and can help treat liver and stomach ailments, such as cramps and spasms. Milk thistle’s ingredients can have a relaxation effect on the gastrointestinal muscles and help boost digestion.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Nettles are usually associated with the pain caused from touching the stinging variety, but they have also been used for centuries in herbal remedies. Nettles are a natural diuretic, which aids in gastric health and can help lower high blood pressure. The plant also has nephritic properties, meaning it can help break down stones in the kidney and gallbladder.

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Peppermint has been used as a remedy for indigestion and to relieve cramps since ancient Egypt. Dried peppermint leaves were even found in Egyptian pyramids. The plant is rich in essential oils (especially menthol and menthone) that have not only been proven to help with digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, but have also been found to be effective in treating headaches.

9 Popular Herbal Medicines: Benefits and Uses

Does Herbal Medicine Work?

Written by Ansley Hill, RD, LD on February 3, 2020 — Medically reviewed by Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE

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For centuries, cultures around the world have relied on traditional herbal medicine to meet their healthcare needs.

Despite medical and technological advancements of the modern era, the global demand for herbal remedies is on the rise. In fact, it’s estimated that this industry grosses about $60 billion annually (1).

  • Some natural remedies may be more affordable and accessible than conventional medicines, and many people prefer using them because they align with their personal health ideologies (1).
  • All the same, you may wonder whether herbal options are effective.
  • Here are 9 of the world’s most popular herbal medicines, including their main benefits, uses, and relevant safety information.

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  1. Echinacea, or coneflower, is a flowering plant and popular herbal remedy.
  2. Originally from North America, it has long been used in Native American practices to treat a variety of ailments, including wounds, burns, toothaches, sore throat, and upset stomach (2).
  3. Most parts of the plant, including the leaves, petals, and roots, can be used medicinally — though many people believe the roots have the strongest effect.
  4. Echinacea is usually taken as a tea or supplement but can also be applied topically.
  5. Today, it’s primarily used to treat or prevent the common cold, though the science behind this isn’t particularly strong.
  6. One review in over 4,000 people found a potential 10–20% reduced risk of colds from taking echinacea, but there’s little to no evidence that it treats the cold after you have caught it (3).

Do herbal medicines improve our health?

Herbal medicines are used by about a quarter of adults in the UK, the market is worth at least £485m, and they have a powerful advocate in Prince Charles.

In one of his recently published “black spider” letters, sent to Tony Blair in 2005, the Prince urged a delay implementing EU restrictions on herbal medicines: “I think we both agreed this was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

” But concerns over safety, standardisation, interactions with other drugs, as well as extravagant claims and lack of evidence for efficacy have all led to attempts to regulate herbal medicine and its practitioners.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, says they should be judged in the same way as conventional ones: “If a therapy demonstrably generates more good than harm, it should be considered for routine use.” The problem is that, without good clinical trials, it is hard to say whether a medicine does work – and trials are expensive, time-consuming and hard to organise, especially for small manufacturers.

Since 2011, products have to be registered with the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and granted a traditional herbal registration (THR) before going on sale.

The MHRA usually requires drugs to be of sufficient quality, safety and effectiveness but, in the case of herbal medicines, it recognised the difficulty in providing evidence of effectiveness and asked only for proof of quality and safety and patient information.

Reassuringly, registration means that hundreds of potentially dangerous products have been banned.

However, herbal practitioners don’t need a licence to supply medicines that they create on their own premises following one-to-one consultations, as long as they don’t contain banned substances.

Practitioners may voluntarily sign up to one of a number of organisations, but these have no clout.

Even if the organisation kicks them off its list for bad practice, there is nothing to stop them setting up in the high street.

So, on the plus side, over-the-counter herbal medicines in the UK are now safe and available in a fixed dose. But is there evidence that any of them work?


Each year, 1.5m packs of St John’s wort (Hypericum extract) are sold in the UK.

Trials suggest it is more effective than placebo, and as effective as prescribed antidepressant drugs such as Prozac in mild-to-moderate depression.

Though generally safe, it can interact with other drugs such as the contraceptive pill. It isn’t recommended for children, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding because of a lack of high-quality studies.

Many drugs used to treat cancer are derived from plants – such as vincristine, which comes from the periwinkle. Photograph: Alamy


Justin Stebbing, professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College, London, says that many people turn to herbal medicine and complementary therapies when they feel shortchanged by conventional medicine.

“We need to look at a whole jigsaw of options in treating cancer – diet, anti-inflammatory drugs and others – to see how it fits in with chemotherapy.

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Many drugs used to treat cancer are derived from plants, such as taxol from yew trees and vincristine from periwinkle.

” The herb milk thistle may have liver-protective effects that can be useful in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. “It’s definitely worthy of further study,” he says.


Black cohosh and red clover are often used to reduce menopausal hot flushes. Standardised formulations are safe but there is no evidence that they are more effective than placebo. One small study showed improvement in libido and hot flushes in 15 women given nutrition and lifestyle advice and a tailor-made herbal prescription, compared with a control group.

Aloe vera is used by some people with diabetes to lower blood sugar. Photograph: Alamy


Many people with diabetes turn to natural herbs and spices to lower blood sugar, including aloe vera, bilberry extract, bitter melon, ginger, cinnamon and okra.

The risks are that either they don’t work, resulting in uncontrolled diabetes, or they may work well, but in an erratic way, causing low blood sugar levels, especially when taken with conventional sugar-lowering drugs such as insulin.

Ayurvedic physicians use a mixture of herbs and lifestyle advice.

A Cochrane collaboration review of seven trials of Ayurvedic medicines used to treat diabetes found some positive results and no serious side-effects, but said no firm conclusions could be drawn.

Potentially harmful levels of metals, including lead, mercury and arsenic, have been found in up to a fifth of Ayurvedic products bought online.


Some herbal remedies may be effective in treating asthma. An analysis of 17 randomised controlled trials into the use of herbal preparations in asthma (Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine) found a significant improvement in more than half of the trials.

The herbs included Tylophora indica, marijuana and dried leaf extract among others, though the analysis couldn’t identify which was effective. However, many herbs interact with conventional treatment.

St John’s wort makes the asthma-relieving drug aminophylline less effective, so symptoms may get worse. Herbalists often stock royal jelly, made by bees, which is marketed for use in asthma, among other conditions.

But Asthma UK strongly recommends that people with asthma and allergies don’t take it as there have been reports of severe, and occasionally fatal, asthma and allergic attacks.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Many people with IBS turn to herbal medicines to help control symptoms of diarrhoea, bloating and abdominal cramps. Traditional Chinese medicine uses formulas including rhubarb, tangerine, cardamom and liquorice and five or more herbs.

Individual herbs can be used for specific symptoms; UK doctors prescribe peppermint oil capsules for bloating and cramps in IBS, even though evidence is limited. Ginger is widely believed to help nausea, with some evidence that it is better than placebo in morning sickness and sea-sickness though not necessarily in IBS.

Iberogast is a combination of nine herbs and plant extracts, and appears to be effective in treating symptoms of indigestion and IBS with minimal side-effects.

• This article was amended on 9 June 2015 to correct the spelling of Ayurvedic medicine.

Alternative medicines are popular, but do any of them really work?

Coconut oil is sometimes recommended for helping prevent Alzheimer’s disease. (ISTOCKPHOTO)

If people want to burn fat, detoxify livers, shrink prostates, avoid colds, stimulate brains, boost energy, reduce stress, enhance immunity, prevent cancer, extend lives, enliven sex or eliminate pain, all they have to do is walk in to a vitamin store and look around.

The shelves will be lined with ginkgo or rose and orange oils touted as aids for memory; guarana and cordyceps for energy; chicory root for constipation; lemon balm oil, ashwagandha, eleuthero, Siberian ginseng and holy basil for stress; sage and black cohosh for menstrual pain; coconut oil and curry powder for Alzheimer’s disease; saw palmetto for prostate health; sandalwood bark to prevent aging; garlic for high cholesterol; peppermint oil for allergies; artichoke extract and green papaya for digestion; echinacea for colds; chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine for joint pain; milk thistle for hepatitis; St. John’s wort for depression; and tongkat ali for sexual potency.

The question, however, is: Which products work? And how do we know they work? Fortunately, thanks to James Lind, we can figure it out.

When Lind climbed aboard the HMS Salisbury intent on testing whether citrus was a cure for scurvy in 1740, he moved medicine from a faith-based system to an evidence-based system. No longer do we believe in treatments. We can test them to see whether they work.

Although the size and cost of clinical studies have increased dramatically since the days of Lind, the claims made about alternative remedies are testable, eminently testable.

In that sense, there’s no such thing as alternative medicine. If clinical trials show that a therapy works, it’s good medicine. And if a therapy doesn’t work, then it’s not an alternative.

For example, Hippocrates used the leaves of the willow plant to treat headaches and muscle pains. By the early 1800s, scientists had isolated the active ingredient: aspirin. In the 1600s, a Spanish physician found that the bark of the cinchona tree treated malaria.

Later, cinchona bark was shown to contain quinine, a medicine now proven to kill the parasite that causes malaria. In the late 1700s, William Withering used the foxglove plant to treat people with heart failure. Later, foxglove was found to contain digitalis, a drug that increases heart contractility.

More recently, artemisia, an herb used by Chinese healers for more than a thousand years, was found to contain another anti-malaria drug, which was later called artemisinin.

“Herbal remedies are not really alternative,” writes Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist. “They have been part of scientific medicine for decades, if not centuries. Herbs are drugs, and they can be studied as drugs.”

In many case, though, when natural products have been put to the test, they’ve fallen short of their claims. For instance, although mainstream medicine hasn’t found a way to treat dementia or enhance memory, practitioners of alternative medicine claim that they have: ginkgo biloba. As a consequence, ginkgo is one of the 10 most commonly used natural products.

Yet between 2000 and 2008, the National Institutes of Health funded a collaborative study by the University of Washington, the University of Pittsburgh, Wake Forest University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Davis to determine whether ginkgo worked. More than 3,000 elderly adults were randomly assigned to receive ginkgo or a placebo. Decline in memory and onset of dementia were the same in both groups. In 2012, a study of more than 2,800 adults found that ginkgo didn’t ward off Alzheimer’s disease.

Another example is St. John’s wort. Every year, 10 million people suffer major depression in the United States, and every year 35,000 people kill themselves.

Depression is a serious illness; to treat it, scientists have developed medicines that alter brain chemicals such as serotonin.

Called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), these drugs are licensed by the FDA and have been shown to help with severe depression.

But some people have heard there’s a more natural, safer way to treat severe depression: St. John’s wort.

Because so many people use the herb and because depression, if not properly treated, can lead to suicide, researchers studied it.

Between November 1998 and January 2000, 11 academic medical centers randomly assigned 200 outpatients to receive St. John’s wort or a placebo: The results showed no difference in any measure of depression.

Another favorite home remedy is garlic, to lower cholesterol.

Because high cholesterol is associated with heart disease, because heart disease is a leading cause of death, because lipid-lowering agents lower cholesterol and because many people are choosing garlic instead of lipid-lowering agents, researchers studied it.

In 2007, Christopher Gardner and co-workers at Stanford University School of Medicine evaluated the effects of garlic on 192 adults with high levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (bad cholesterol).

Six days a week for six months, participants received either raw garlic, powdered garlic, aged garlic extract or a placebo. After checking cholesterol levels monthly, investigators concluded, “None of the forms of garlic used in this study . . . had statistically or clinically significant effects on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or other plasma lipid concentrations in adults with moderate hypercholesterolemia.”

Saw palmetto for the prostate is also popular. As a man ages, his prostate enlarges, which blocks the flow of urine. If untreated, prostate enlargement can cause urinary tract infections, bladder stones and kidney failure. Medicines that relax muscles within the prostate or reduce its size have been available for years. But more than 2 million men turn to saw palmetto instead.

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In 2006, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, supported a study at the University of California at San Francisco, the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Northern California Kaiser Permanente. Investigators assigned 225 men with moderate to severe symptoms of prostate enlargement to receive either saw palmetto or a placebo twice daily for a year: They found no difference between the two groups in urinary flow rate, prostate size or quality of life.

Five years later, the study was repeated with 369 men, this time with higher doses. Again, no change in urinary symptoms. “Now we know that even very high doses of saw palmetto make absolutely no difference,” said study author Gerald Andriole. “It clearly does not work any better than a sugar pill.”

Another popular remedy is milk thistle, which some have said can help patients with chronic hepatitis or other liver problems.

In 2011, Michael Fried of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led a group of investigators testing those claims. More than 150 people infected with hepatitis C virus were given either milk thistle or a placebo. Then investigators determined the amount of liver damage, as well as the quantities of hepatitis C virus in blood. They found no difference between the two groups.

And what about chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine for joint pain? In 2006, Daniel Clegg of the University of Utah led a group of investigators to see whether it worked.

They studied more than 1,500 people with knee osteoarthritis who were given either chondroitin sulfate alone, glucosamine alone, both, a placebo or Celebrex (an FDA-licensed anti-inflammatory drug).

Only Celebrex worked for all subgroups in the study.

Herbal Medicine

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Products made from botanicals, or plants, that are used to treat diseases or to maintain health are called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines. A product made from plants and used solely for internal use is called an herbal supplement.

Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines are also made from plant products, but these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.

Herbal supplements come in all forms: dried, chopped, powdered, capsule, or liquid, and can be used in various ways, including:

  • Swallowed as pills, powders, or tinctures
  • Brewed as tea
  • Applied to the skin as gels, lotions, or creams
  • Added to bath water

The practice of using herbal supplements dates back thousands of years. Today, the use of herbal supplements is common among American consumers. However, they are not for everyone.

Because they are not subject to close scrutiny by the FDA, or other governing agencies, the use of herbal supplements remains controversial.

It is best to consult your doctor about any symptoms or conditions you have and to discuss the use of herbal supplements.

The FDA and herbal supplements

The FDA considers herbal supplements foods, not drugs. Therefore, they are not subject to the same testing, manufacturing, and labeling standards and regulations as drugs.

You can now see labels that explain how herbs can influence different actions in the body. However, herbal supplement labels can't refer to treating specific medical conditions. This is because herbal supplements are not subject to clinical trials or to the same manufacturing standards as prescription or traditional over-the-counter drugs.

For example, St. John's wort is a popular herbal supplement thought to be useful for treating depression in some cases. A product label on St. John's wort might say, “enhances mood,” but it cannot claim to treat a specific condition, such as depression.

Herbal Medicine Fundamentals

The American Herbalists Guild, a non-profit, educational organization for the furtherance of herbalism, frequently receives questions about herbs. The following are among the most commonly asked. If any of your questions are not answered here, you may contact us for further information.

WHAT IS AN HERB?Medicinally, an herb is any plant or plant part used for its therapeutic value. Yet, many of the world's herbal traditions also include mineral and animal substances as “herbal medicines”.

WHAT IS HERBAL MEDICINE?Herbal medicine is the art and science of using herbs for promoting health and preventing and treating illness.

It has persisted as the world's primary form of medicine since the beginning of time, with a written history more than 5000 years old.

While the use of herbs in America has been overshadowed by dependence on modern medications the last 100 years, 75% of the world's population still rely primarily upon traditional healing practices, most of which is herbal medicine.

HOW ARE HERBS DIFFERENT FROM PHARMACEUTICALS?Most pharmaceutical drugs are single chemical entities that are highly refined and purified and are often synthesized. In 1987 about 85% of modern drugs were originally derived from plants.

Currently, only about 15% of drugs are derived from plants. In contrast, herbal medicines are prepared from living or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated compounds.

Science is beginning to demonstrate that the safety and effectiveness of herbs is often related to the synergy of its many constituents.

HOW IS HERBAL MEDICINE DIFFERENT FROM CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?The primary focus of the herbalist is to treat people as individuals irrespective of the disease or condition they have, and to stimulate their innate healing power through the use of such interventions as herbs, diet, and lifestyle.

The primary focus of conventional physicians is to attack diseases using strong chemicals that are difficult for the body to process, or through the removal of organs. Not only does this ignore the unique makeup of the individual, but many patients under conventional care suffer from side effects that are as bad as the condition being treated.

The philosophical difference between herbalists and conventional physicians has profound significance.

WHAT IS AN HERBALIST?Herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They include native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters, and herbal farmers to name a few.

While herbalists are quite varied, the common love and respect for life, especially the relationship between plants and humans, unites them.

Persons specializing in the therapeutic use of plants may be medical herbalists, traditional herbalists, acupuncturists, midwives, naturopathic physicians, or even one's own grandmother.

HOW CAN HERBS AND HERBAL MEDICINE HELP ME?Herbs can offer you a wide range of safe and effective therapeutic agents that you can use as an integral part of your own health care program. They can be used in three essential ways:

  1. to prevent disease
  2. to treat disease
  3. to maximize one's health potential

Herbs are also used for the symptomatic relief of minor ailments.

HOW CAN I KNOW IF A PARTICULAR HERB WILL WORK FOR ME?Medicine is an art, not just a science. No one can predict which herb will work best for every individual in all situations.

This can only come with educated self-experimentation and experience or by seeking the assistance of those who are knowledgeable in clinical herbal medicine. The simpler the condition, the easier it is to find a solution.

The more complicated the condition, the greater the need there is to seek expert advice.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR HERBS TO BE EFFECTIVE?The success of herbal treatment always depends upon a variety of factors including how long the condition has existed, the severity of the condition, the dosage and mode of administration of the herb(s), and how diligently treatment plans are followed.

It can be as short as 60 seconds when using a spoonful of herbal bitters for gas and bloating after a heavy meal; 20 minutes when soaking in a bath with rosemary tea for a headache; days when using tonics to build energy; or months to correct long-standing gynecological imbalances.

Difficult chronic conditions can often take years to reverse.


Herbal Medicine

URL of this page: Also called: Botanicals, Phytotherapy

An herb is a plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, or therapeutic properties. Herbal medicines are one type of dietary supplement. They are sold as tablets, capsules, powders, teas, extracts, and fresh or dried plants. People use herbal medicines to try to maintain or improve their health.

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Many people believe that products labeled “natural” are always safe and good for them. This is not necessarily true. Herbal medicines do not have to go through the testing that drugs do. Some herbs, such as comfrey and ephedra, can cause serious harm. Some herbs can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

If you are thinking about using an herbal medicine, first get information on it from reliable sources. Make sure to tell your health care provider about any herbal medicines you are taking.

NIH: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

  • 5 Tips: What You Should Know about Popular Herbs (Evening Primrose Oil, St. John's Wort, Fenugreek, Echinacea, and Aloe Vera) (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Acai (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Aloe Vera (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Aristolochic Acids (National Toxicology Program) – PDF
  • Asian Ginseng (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Astragalus (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Bilberry (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Bitter Orange (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Black Cohosh (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Butterbur (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Cat's Claw (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Chamomile (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Chasteberry (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Cinnamon (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Cranberry (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Dandelion (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Echinacea (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Echinacea: What Should I Know about It? (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
  • Ephedra (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • European Elder (Elderberry) (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • European Mistletoe (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Evening Primrose Oil (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Fenugreek (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Feverfew (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Garlic (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Ginger (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Gingko (National Toxicology Program) – PDF
  • Ginkgo (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Goldenseal (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Grape Seed Extract (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Green Tea (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Hawthorn (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Hoodia (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Horse Chestnut (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Kava (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Lavender (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Licorice Root (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Milk Thistle (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Noni (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Passionflower (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Peppermint Oil (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Red Clover (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Red Yeast Rice (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Sage (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Saw Palmetto (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Soy (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • St. John's Wort (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Tea Tree Oil (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Thunder God Vine (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Turmeric (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • Valerian (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
  • What Are Chia Seeds? (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)
  • Yohimbe (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health. There is not enough reliable scientific evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer.


  • Herbal medicine uses plants or plant extracts to treat illness and promote health
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to use it as a cancer treatment
  • Herbal medicines might have side effects and interact with other medicines
  • Herbal medicines may not be regulated if made outside the UK, and what they contain can vary. If you are going to buy herbal remedies it is safest to buy them from a fully qualified herbal practitioner.

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicines are made from plants. They use combinations of plant parts, for example leaves, flowers or roots. Each part of the plant can have a different medicinal use. Manufacturers use different ways of extracting the chemicals from the plant parts. They use fresh and dried plants to make the medicine.

Herbal medicine aims to restore your body, so that it can protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach. It looks at your physical, mental and emotional well being. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phytotherapy or botanical medicine.

Manufacturers make many drugs from plants. But herbalists don’t extract plant substances in the way the drug industry does. Herbalists believe that the remedy works due to the delicate chemical balance of the whole plant, or mixtures of plants. And not from one active ingredient.

The two most common types of herbal medicine used in the UK are Western and Chinese herbal medicine. Less common types include Tibetan or Ayurvedic medicine (Indian).

Western herbal medicine

Western herbal medicine focuses on the whole person rather than their illness. So, the herbalist looks at your:

  • personal health history
  • family history
  • diet
  • lifestyle

Western herbal therapists usually make medicines from European and North American herbs. They also use herbs from China and India.

Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants or plant parts. They believe it helps your body to heal itself or to reduce the side effects of medical treatments.

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is part of a whole system of medicine. The system is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

TCM aims to restore the balance of your Qi (pronounced chee). TCM practitioners believe that Qi is the flow of energy in your body and is essential for good health.

Yin and yang refer to different qualities of Qi. When all of the yin and yang aspects of Qi are in harmony with one another, there is health, wellbeing and peace. Illness is due to a disturbance of the balance between yin and yang. Chinese herbalists use plants according to how they affect a part of the body or energy channel.

TCM includes:

  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy
  • herbal remedies
  • traditional breathing and movement exercises called qi gong (pronounced chee goong)
  • movement exercises called tai chi (pronounced tie chee)

TCM uses hundreds of medicinal substances. Most of these are plants, but there are also some minerals and animal products.

Practitioners may use different parts of plants. They might use the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds. Usually, they combine herbs and you take them as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.

Why people with cancer use it

Herbal medicine is one of the most used complementary and alternative therapies by people with cancer. This is alongside conventional cancer treatments.

People have used herbal medicine for centuries to treat many different health conditions. They believe it is a natural way to help you relax and cope with anxiety and depression. Or, to help with other conditions such as:

  • hay fever
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • menstrual (period) problems
  • eczema

People might also use herbal medicine to help themselves to feel better or more in control of their situation.

A 2011 study in the UK surveyed people with cancer who use herbal medicines. It found that most of the people used herbal medicines to feel more in control. And that it helped them to feel that they have some responsibility for their treatment. They also felt the therapies wouldn't cause side effects.

How you have it

During your first visit, the herbalist will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet and medical history.

During your first visit, the herbalist will:

  • take your full history
  • ask about your family’s medical history
  • discuss your diet and lifestyle
  • find out about any medication or supplements you use

They will also do a physical examination, which may include:

  • feeling your pulse
  • taking your blood pressure
  • examining your skin and nails
  • feeling your abdomen
  • looking at your tongue
  • looking at your eyes

The herbalist will then decide which remedies you need. They will usually make it while you wait.

The remedy might be:

  • a diluted alcohol solution of plant parts (tincture)
  • powders made into tablets or capsules

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