Did you know that about 25 percent of the drugs prescribed worldwide are derived from plants? Of the 252 drugs in the World Health Organization’s essential medicine list, 11 percent are exclusively of plant origin. In fact, about 200 years ago the first pharmacological compound, morphine, was produced from opium extracted from the seed pods of the poppy flower. Since then, scientists have been studying plants to create the pharmaceutical products we know today. But after years of overmedicating, facing resistant bacteria in the microbiome and treating the illness rather than the root of the problem, people are beginning to pay more attention to natural, herbal medicine. (1)
Millions of dollars have recently been invested in looking for promising medicinal herbs. These substantial research investments in traditional herbal medicine are still relatively modest when compared to the overall pharmaceutical industry, but it proves that researchers are beginning to steer away from conventional drug development and look toward more alternative and natural forms of treatment.
Natural plant products have been used throughout human history for various purposes. In fact, written records of the use of herbal medicine date back more than 5,000 years, and for much of history, herbal medicine was the only medicine.
Today, plants are being used to treat a number of health concerns and conditions, including allergies, arthritis, migraines, fatigue, skin infections, wounds, burns, gastrointestinal issues and even cancer — proving that it’s true that food is medicine. These herbs are less expensive and they’re a safer means of treatment than conventional medications, which is why so many people are choosing to go back to this traditional idea of medicine.
What Is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicines are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances that are used to treat illnesses within local or regional healing practices. These products are complex mixtures of organic chemicals that may come from any raw or processed part of a plant.
Herbal medicine has its roots in every culture around the world. There are many different systems of traditional medicine, and the philosophy and practices of each are influenced by social conditions, environment and geographic location, but these systems all agree on a holistic approach to life. Well-known systems of herbal medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine believe in the central idea that there should be an emphasis on health rather than on disease. By using healing herbs, people can thrive and focus on their overall conditions, rather than on a particular ailment that typically arises from a lack of equilibrium of the mind, body and environment.
Although botanical medicine has been practiced for thousands of years, it continues to be of use in the modern, Western world. The World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care, and the worldwide annual market for these products is approaching $60 billion. People in the United States have become more interested in herbal medicine because of the rising cost of prescription medication and the returning interest in natural or organic remedies. (2)
Whole herbs contain many ingredients that are used to treat diseases and relieve symptoms. Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine, uses the plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark or flowers for medicinal purposes. The biological properties of these plants have beneficial effects. Other factors are responsible for their benefits as well, such as the type of environment in which the plant grew, the way in which it was harvested and how it was processed. The plant is either sold raw or as extracts, where it’s macerated with water, alcohol or other solvents to extract some of the chemicals. The resulting products contain dozens of chemicals, including fatty acids, sterols, alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, saponins and others. (3)
Benefits of Herbal Medicine
1. More Affordable than Conventional Medicine
Modern medical science certainly comes with a high price tag, and pharmaceuticals are no exception. One reason why herbal medicine is becoming more popular recently is because people simply can’t afford to pay for their medication month after month.
A systematic review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine evaluated whether or not natural health products provide a cost-effective choice in the treatment of disease. Researchers found that natural health products show evidence of cost-effectiveness in relation to postoperative surgery and complications. (4) More research is needed to determine the cost-effectiveness in other areas of modern medicine, but the preliminary data suggests that herbal products are more affordable than pharmaceuticals.
2. Easier to Obtain than Prescription Medications
Herbal products, such as herbal extracts, essential oils and herbal teas, are available in most health food and even grocery stores, so you don’t have to see a doctor to get prescriptions before purchasing them. This certainly makes it easier to obtain herbal products and avoid additional health care costs.
Herbs are classified as dietary supplements, so they can be produced, sold and marketed without going through the FDA. Although this makes it easier to purchase and use these beneficial products, it’s our job as consumers to choose among the competitors. Make sure to read the ingredients and labels carefully before using any herbal supplement. Purchase from a reputable and trustworthy company that verifies the product is 100 percent pure-grade.
3. Hold Beneficial, Healing Properties
Herbs are used for the treatment of chronic and acute conditions and various ailments, including major health concerns like cardiovascular disease, prostate problems, depression, inflammation and weakened immune system. Herbs are used around the world to treat conditions and diseases, and many studies prove their efficacy. In fact, of the 177 drugs approved worldwide for the treatment of cancer, more than 70 percent are based on natural products or chemical imitations of natural products. (5)
Top 10 Herbs Used in Herbal Medicine
1. Raw Garlic
Garlic contains vital nutrients, including flavonoids, oligosaccharides, selenium, allicin and high levels of sulfur. Consuming cooked or raw garlic, by adding it to food or taking a capsule, can help treat diabetes, fight inflammation, boost the immune system, regulate blood pressure, fight cardiovascular disease, relieve allergies, fight fungal and viral infections, and improve hair loss.
Studies show an inverse correlation between garlic consumption and progress of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that garlic reduces cholesterol, inhibits platelet clustering, reduces blood pressure and increases antioxidant status. (6)
Ginger is the most widely used dietary condiment in the world today. The therapeutic benefits of ginger come from gingerols, the oily resin from the root that acts as a highly potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Gingerol, among other bioactive agents present in ginger, are able to relieve indigestion and nausea, boost immune and respiratory function, fight bacterial and fungal infections, treat stomach ulcers, reduce pain, improve diabetes, prevent malabsorption, and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
According to a 2013 review of evidence published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, the anticancer potential of ginger is well-documented, and its functional ingredients like gingerols, shogaol and paradols are the valuable ingredients that can prevent various cancers. Researchers also found that ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties for controlling the aging process. (7)
There are several ways to use ginger. It can be eaten raw, taken in powder or supplement form, consumed in liquid form by making a tea, or used topically in oil form.
Turmeric is a plant that has a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4,000 years. Modern medicine has begun to recognize its importance, as indicated by the over 3,000 publications dealing with turmeric. This powerful plant can be added to any recipe or taken as a supplement. There are a range of turmeric benefits, including its ability to slow and prevent blood clotting, fight depression, reduce inflammation, relieve arthritis pain, manage diabetes, treat gastrointestinal issues, regulate cholesterol, and fight cancer.
Several studies indicate that turmeric has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. As an antioxidant, turmeric extracts can scavenge free radicals, increase antioxidant enzymes and inhibit lipid peroxidation. (8)
Ginseng is one of the most popular herbal medicines in the world, and it’s been used in Asia and North American for centuries. Native Americans used the root as a stimulant and headache remedy, as well as a treatment for infertility, fever and indigestion, for instance.
A study done at the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the U.K. was conducted to gather data about ginseng’s benefits and its ability to improve mood and mental function. It involved 30 volunteers who were given three rounds of treatments of ginseng and a placebo, and the results found that 200 milligrams of ginseng for eight days slowed the fall in mood but also slowed the participants’ response to mental arithmetic. The 400-milligram dose improved calmness and improved mental arithmetic for the duration of the eight-day treatment. (9)
Ginseng is also used to reduce stress, help with weight loss, treat sexual dysfunction, improve lung function, lower blood sugar levels, boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Ginseng is available in dried, powdered, tea, capsule and tablet forms.
5. Milk Thistle
Milk thistle extracts have been used as traditional herbal medicine remedies for almost 2,000 years. Milk thistle contains high levels of lipophilic extracts from the seeds of the plant, which act as bioflavonoids that increase immunity and slow down oxidative stress. The herb is also used for its anti-inflammatory properties. It can aid digestive function, increase bile production, boost skin health, fight the appearance of aging, lower cholesterol levels and help detoxify the body.
A review of clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of milk thistle found that the herb has protective effects in certain types of cancer, and data shows it can also be used for patients with liver diseases, hepatitis C, HIV, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia. Milk thistle extracts, which are commonly sold in capsules, are also known to be safe and well-tolerated. (10)
For centuries, feverfew has been used for fevers, headaches, stomachaches, toothaches, insect bites, infertility, and problems with menstruation and labor during childbirth. Feverfew’s pain-easing effect is said to come from a biochemical called parthenolides, which combats the widening of blood vessels that occurs in migraines. The herb is also used to prevent dizziness, relieve allergies, reduce arthritis pain and prevent blood clots.
Several impressive human studies show the positive effects of using feverfew to prevent and treat migraines. A systematic review completed by the School of Postgraduate Medicine and Health Science in the U.K. compared the results of six studies. Researchers found that feverfew is indeed effective in the prevention of migraine headaches and does not pose any major safely concerns. (11)
Feverfew is available in capsule form, as tablets and liquid extract. Supplements should be standardized to contain at least 0.2 percent parthenolide. The leaves of feverfew can be used to make tea, but they have a bitter taste and may be irritate the mouth.
7. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has been used as a medicinal herb for its antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties for over 2,000 years. It produces dozens of biologically active substances, but hypericin and hyperforin have the greatest medical activity. St. John’s wort uses come from its antidepressant activity, ability to relieve PMS symptoms, improve mood during menopause, fight inflammation, relieve skin irritations and improve symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
A study done at the Institute of Psychological Sciences in the United Kingdom included 36 women aged 18–45 who experienced regular menstrual cycles and were diagnosed with mild PMS. The women were randomly assigned to receive either St. John’s wort tablets at 900 milligrams a day or identical placebo tablets for two menstrual cycles; then the groups switched doses for the next two cycles. Symptoms were rated daily throughout the study, and the women reported on feelings of depression, aggression, hormone balance and hormonal stimulation. The trials showed that St. John’s wort was superior to a placebo in improving physical and behavioral symptoms of PMS. (12)
8. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba, which is also known as maidenhair, is an ancient plant extract that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to heal various health ailments for thousands of years. Current research shows that it’s linked to improvements in cognitive function. When researchers from Beijing University of Chinese Medicine reviewed evidence from 14 randomized controlled trials involving brain injury patients, it reported that ginkgo biloba extract had positive effects on patients’ neurological impairment and quality of life in nine of the trials. (13)
Other ginkgo biloba benefits include its ability to improve concentration and memory, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, fight anxiety and depression, help maintain vision and eye health, relieve ADHD symptoms, improve libido, and fight fibromyalgia.
Ginkgo biloba is available in capsule, tablet, liquid extract and dried leaf form. The standardized extract form contains 24 percent to 32 percent flavonoids and 6 percent to 12 percent terpenoids.
9. Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto supplements are some of the most commonly consumed supplements by men with prostate cancer and benign prostatic hyperplasia. Saw palmetto has been shown to slow the production of the enzyme 5-alpha reductase, which converts the male hormone testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a sex steroid and androgen hormone. While DHT is important because it plays a role in male development, it also contributes to many common health issues in men, such as loss of libido, an enlarged prostate and hair loss.
A 2003 study published in American Family Physician demonstrates the effectiveness of saw palmetto in reducing symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia. Saw palmetto appeared to have efficacy similar to that of medications like finasteride, but it was better tolerated and less expensive. (14)
Aside from its ability to relieve conditions triggered by DHT, saw palmetto is also known to fight inflammation, boost immune function, treat respiratory conditions and promote relaxation.
10. Aloe Vera
In traditional Indian medicine, aloe vera is used for constipation, skin diseases, worm infestation, infections and as a natural remedy for colic. In Chinese medicine, it’s often recommended in the treatment of fungal diseases, and in the Western world, it has found widespread use in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries. Aloe vera is considered to be the most biologically active of the aloe species; astonishingly, more than 75 potentially active components have been identified in the plant, including vitamins, minerals, saccharides, amino acids, anthraquinones, enzymes, lignin, saponins and salicylic acids. It provides 20 of the 22 human-required amino acids and all eight of the essential amino acids.
Studies have proved the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antifungal properties of aloe vera. The plant has also proved to be non-allergic and very good in building up the immune system. One study reported in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that 30 milliliters of aloe vera juice twice a day decreased the level of discomfort in 33 patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Flatulence also decreased for the participants, but stool consistence, urgency and frequency remained the same. (15)
Other aloe vera benefits include its ability to soothe rashes and skin irritations; treat burns and cold sores; moisturize the skin, hair and scalp; provide antioxidants; and reduce inflammation. Aloe vera can be used topically or orally, and it’s available in most health food stores.
Herbal Medicine Precautions
Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which means that they’re not tested to prove they’re safe and effective, unlike prescription drugs. (16) This is why some manufacturers can get away with selling herbal products that aren’t completely pure. When buying herbs to be used for medicine, make sure to purchase 100 pure-grade products from a reputable company. This ensures that you get the highest quality product that’s not weakened with less expensive additives and isn’t grown with pesticides or contaminated with heavy metals.
Botanical medicine may also cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, which is why you should consult your health care provider before beginning any herbal treatments. Herbalists, naturopathic physicians, pharmacists, medical doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners can provide information about herbal medicine and help you to choose what herb is best to address your health concerns. Be sure to do your own research on the herb you use and check for possible side effects and appropriate dosage.
Final Thoughts on Herbal Medicine
- Natural planet products have been used throughout human history for various purposes. In fact, written records of the use of herbal medicine date back more than 5,000 years.
- Herbal medicines, or botanicals, are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances that are used to treat illnesses within local or regional healing practices.
- Today, herbalism is being noticed for focusing on overall wellness and prevention rather than treating a disease or ailment once it arises.
- Herbal medicine is more cost-effective than modern medicine, it’s easier to obtain and it has several health benefits that are comparable to modern pharmaceuticals.
- Some of the most well-known and most used herbs include garlic, ginger, turmeric, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and aloe vera.
- While research suggests that herbal products have less adverse side effects than conventional medications, it’s important that consumers choose pure, high-quality products. If you’re planning to take herbal products for an extended period of time, see an herbalist or health care provider for guidance.