How Does Herbal Medicine Work

What are the origins of herbal medicine?

People have used extracts from plants for thousands of years to treat their ills, the Egyptians were using herbal remedies some 3500 years ago, while there is evidence other ancient peoples, such as the Persians, the Chinese, the Indians and the people of the Americas have used medicinal herbs for centuries.

No one knows, however, who or where the first people used plants to make themselves feel better. In fact, there is evidence that apes and other animals seek out certain types of plant when they feel ill, so it could be older than human history.

More than eighty percent of the world’s population uses herbal medicines in one form or another from China to Australia and from America and Europe to Africa. Western herbalism evolved from the work of apothecaries and the alchemists going as far back as the Romans.

Herbal folklore slowly evolved over the centuries with lotions and potions being passed down through families. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century led to an explosion in herbal medicine as recipes for treatments could be copied and used by anyone who could read.

By the seventeenth century, Nicholas Culpeper had put together a book of herbal remedies, which became very popular. In his book, Culpeper built on the idea of the ‘doctrine of signatures’ which the early chemist Paracelsus had first though of. He believed that how a plant looked provided clues as to what ailment it would cure.

By 1985, the World Health Organisation was saying that herbal remedies are an important part of healthcare. In continental Europe it has become very common although its use is only gradually increasing in the UK.

How does herbal medicine work?

Herbalists try to find the underlying cause of an illness rather than treat the individual symptoms. The believe that the use of tinctures and herbal tonics can help the body to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance and activating the body’s ‘life force’.

Herbal ‘synergy’ is, herbalists believe, the key principle of herbal medicine. Their remedies are extracted from leaves, petals and roots of plants and are a complex mixture of lots of different compounds. While a conventional pharmaceutical will usually be a single active ingredient, the idea of herbal ‘synergy’ explains that the hundreds if not thousands of constituents of a plant extract all work together to treat an illness.

For example, ephedrine an early antiasthma drug was first isolated from the herb Ephedra, traditionally used to treat chest complaints. One of the side-effects of ephedrine is that it raises the blood pressure. Herbalists point out that among the many compounds found in the plant itself is one that lowers blood pressure. So, the herbal remedy contains a compound to treat the chest but also to counteract the side effects of that compound.

Another example of herbal synergy can be found in the plant meadowsweet, which is used for stomach complains. The plant contains salicyclic acid which is closely related to aspirin. The compound can cause internal bleeding from the stomach wall but meadowseet contain compounds called polyphenols, which protect the stomach.

What happens during a treatment?

When you consult a herbalist, they will usually take about an hour to discuss your problem, your medical history, your diet and lifestyle and build up a picture of the ‘whole’ person.

The herbalist will then use their knowledge of plants and their different effects on the body to find a mixture that will treat the underlying cause of a problem.

The herbalist will usually give you enough of the remedy, or tell you where to buy it, to take away with you to use before your next consultation. You can expect a lot of herbal remedies to taste nasty owing to the bitter compounds found in many plant extracts.

If appropriate a herbalist may suggest you see a doctor to discuss your problem further.

What can herbal medicine help?

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Certain forms of depression
  • Cold sores
  • Digestive problems
  • Eczema
  • Hayfever and allergies
  • Menstrual and menopause problems

Where’s the evidence?

There have been numerous trials that demonstrate the effectiveness of some herbal remedies. For instance, in a research paper in the medical journal The Lancet, St John’s Wort was reported as being just as effective at treating depression as some pharmaceutical antidepressants. Echinacea, a traditional remedy of the North American Indians, too has been shown to boost the immune system and allegedly staves off all kinds of illnesses, although there are concerns about the safety of repeated long-term use.

Other herbal remedies such as garlic and ginger have been claimed to help with all sorts of problems from high cholesterol and heart disease to digestive complaints. There are many research papers that show positive effects but also some that show the research to be inconclusive.

Context in conventional medicine

It may seem strange, but many of the conventional pharmaceuticals we take today have their roots in herbal medicine. One herbal remedy for fever gave us aspirin (from willow bark), while a plant used to treat chest complaints was developed into the asthma drug salbutamol once scientists had extracted the active ingredient from the plants. Digoxin – the heart drug – comes from the poisonous foxglove and quinine – once used to treat malaria and an ingredient in tonic water – originally came from the cinchona bark. The painkiller morphine was extracted from the opium poppy.

Mainstream doctors in the UK tend to side with the pharmaceutical approach instead though because of the presence of the unknowns associated with herbal remedies. For instance, herbal remedies by their nature are not pure compounds and have been found to contain dangerous toxins in some studies.

While most manufacturers of herbal products try to maintain standards there are unscrupulous traders who may provide herbalists with poor quality remedies. Worse still, if you are buying herbal remedies for yourself through a health-food shop or elsewhere there is an overwhelming range of products available and no certain guarantee of quality. At best some of these products may simply have been so diluted down that they are effectively useless at worst they may be so strong as to risk patients overdosing on certain ingredients, or may even be contaminated with poisonous metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Herbal remedies imported from the East have been found to contain dangerous levels of these elements.

The government is currently considering passing laws that will bring herbal remedies in to line with pharmaceuticals so that they have to pass stringent clinical tests and quality controls before they can be sold. Herbalists worry that this will mean they will not be able to use traditional remedies that have proved successful over centuries because of the costs of obtaining a licence. Many doctors in the mainstream, however, hope such laws will bring herbal medicine into line with accepted safety and efficacy standards.

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8 thoughts on “How Does Herbal Medicine Work”

  1. Dear Mr.Bradley,

    my name is azariah and i am working on an science project for the 8th grade. could you please answer a few questions for me. what type of herbal medicines work best? do they release stress from the muscles? also other then herbal healing can the herbs be used for anything else such as strength for the bones, or energy? please if you have the time sen me back a reply for these questions that i have……… THANK YOU!

  2. I love how for the evidence, they provide no sources to the exact studies done, or at least give background on them. Seems fishy if you ask me.

  3. I think that child deaths in clinical trials are irresponsible. Children should be the last to be used in a trial, only adults who fully understand the risks. It’s sad that drug companies pick on poor illiterate families to do their work…

  4. Recent news report: An NGO member applied Right to Information ACt to know the number of Infants dead in clinical trials in past few years at All India Institue of medical sciences, New Delhi. the number was a staggering 45 in pas couple of years. there were almost equal number of deaths boht in control and treated groups. And most of the parents of the patients under trial were illeterates.
    It clears a few things.
    1. Clinical trials also have their own disadvantages, although it is the proven and globally accpeted way of establishng drug efficacy.
    2. For a science as ancient and holistic as Ayurveda is , the truths in it can be made globally accepted by a healthy and wiseful mixture of Traditional and clinical methods.
    3. India has become a hub for clinical trials because of cost effectiveness, innocence and a large population.
    4. In a book by Dr. Ray D Strand MD, called as Death by prescription, (published in 2004), the author complains that many newly approved drugs are first released in America causing increased number of death and health hazards to the americans.
    Now I have to opine that Since that was the case, now, many new drugs are released first in the Indian Market so as to test whether the drug really has any side effects.
    5. and finally, not all the prescribed drugs which are in the market are worth considering for prescription to our nearest relatives.

  5. Yes Mr Bradley, I totally agree with you that the double blind controlled clinical trials can only prove any medical claim in any field of medicine. I, being in AYurvedic field for past 10 years, know that efforts are surely made in many academic and clinical research institutes in India to adopt international standards while conducting clinical trials. We know that this is the only way to spread AYurvedic knowledge across the world. Not only that, In pharmaceutical industry also many research works are going on so as to assure safety and efficacy. I am Deputy Product Manager in an Ayurvedic Pharmaceutical company called Arya Vaidya Nilaya, based ast Madurai, India. APart from all the basic equpments to test ahe genuinity of the products, we also have HPTLC here. We are standardising the raw materials, the process and also the finished products. Since the efforts are still in a budding stage, it will take a while to adopt to the international conditions as for as Ayurveda in India is concerned. I am open to your kind advice or opinion regarding this or any medical related matter.

  6. Dr Hebbar Double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are what are needed to validate any medical intervention, they must be applied widely to those forms of traditional medicine that show the most promise, this is the only way to stamp out quackery, such as homeopathy and some of the wilder claims of Ayurveda and TCM.

  7. I agree with the most of the things told about herbal medicines in this website. Ayurveda is the Indian medical science, which holds the credit as the ancient most medical system of the world, which has given some reknown scholars such as Sushruta, Caraka, Vagbhata etc, whose treatment procedures using herbal medicines are very efficacious even in this modern scientific age. howeer, in Ayurveda also, owing to the demands of the modern scientific world, many research works are going on in various instituitions across India and aborad. Which is helping in making this age old medical system, a well documented medical science.

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