You might wonder, now that we have modern conventional medicine, do we still need the alternative treatment option of herbal medicine? And the answer would be most definitely YES. In this post I will outline why I believe alternative medicine still has a lot to offer people who wish to improve their health.
What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicine is a complementary medicine that uses plants and their extracts to benefit health. The herbal product can be the whole plant or just certain parts of the herb. So, flowers, leaves, fruits or berries, bark, stems or twigs, wood, roots, grains or seeds and fungi or extracts from them can all be used for herbal therapy.
Knowledge about which parts of each plant to use has been passed down through generations for thousands of years. In fact, there is written evidence of people using plant medicine in China since around 2700 BC.
And we continue to learn about these medicinal plants with shared clinical evidence between herbalists as well as from modern scientific evidence.
Some examples of popular herbal remedies include echinacea, Aloe vera, chamomile, garlic, ginger, turmeric, lavender, cranberries, evening primrose oil, peppermint, pomegranate and Ginkgo biloba.
You might see herbal medicine called phytomedicine, botanicals or botanical drugs, or folk medicine, but these all mean the same thing - plant therapies.
Why is herbal medicine a popular alternative therapy?
It is estimated that more people use herbal medicine today than ever before. In some parts of the world, plants provide the only source of treatment. But even in developed countries with easy access to modern medical care, these alternative approaches are still very popular. In the UK, up to a third of the population regularly use complementary therapies or alternative treatments.
Herbal remedies are used for different purposes. For example, some medicinal plants may be used to relieve pain or promote relaxation, and others to prevent infections or illnesses.
Whatever the reason, herbal medicine remains popular because people view the remedies as safe yet effective, without harmful side effects. At least in comparison to pharmaceutical drugs. And with good reason. Because while there have been a small number of cases of adverse events because the wrong plant or plant part was taken. Compare this to the published statistic that in the US, around 8% of hospital admissions are due to adverse effects of synthetic drugs, and thousands die every year from adverse reactions to supposedly safe drugs that are available over-the-counter.
What's more, natural remedies can help people to support ongoing good health. In fact, health maintenance is a perfect way to use herbal medicine, and ideally conventional medical treatment is used only as a last resort. But, in my experience, most people turn to alternative medicine after conventional treatment has nothing more to offer. At this point, it is advisable to ask a herbalist for guidance.
How is herbal medicine different to conventional medicine?
A striking difference between herbs and synthetic drugs is the composition of the prescribed product.
Most conventional drugs are single, pure ingredient, standardised medicines that can be reliably dosed and prescribed.
In comparison, plant material provides much more complicated and complex remedies. The composition of plants varies according to many factors. Habitat, growing conditions, harvesting time and storage are all known factors that can affect the composition and quality of the remedy. This is one reason to make sure that you source your herbal medicines from a trusted supplier who can check that the remedies contain the expected chemical profile. And can guarantee their safety and quality.
Each herb contains many active components that may interact with each other, in synergy, additively or in an antagonistic way. These interactions are hard to predict, but do explain why the small amount of phytochemicals in a plant can have underappreciated health effects.
But it is not just the form of treatment that sets these medical systems apart but also the healing approaches. The purpose of the prescribed product is usually different. For example, the aim of modern drugs is often to block or mask symptoms of a particular medical condition. Whereas, herbal medicine seeks to address symptoms as well as the underlying cause of the health problem and improve the functions of cells, tissues and the body to improve and restore health.
Examples of important medicinal plant constituents
Many modern drugs, now produced synthetically, were originally discovered or derived from plants.
Some examples of modern drugs with plant origins:
- Aspirin from meadosweet and white willow
- Morphine from the opium poppy
- Quinine from Cinchona bark
- Digoxin from foxglove
- Taxol from yew
And, we have seen a huge breakthrough in modern healthcare using plant derived constituents, such as the development of artemisinin, now an important antimalarial drug. Plus, a growing amount of evidence from clinical trials on artemisinin in the field of cancer drugs research.
Plants contain these amazing constituents, not for our benefit. Plants make these chemicals, called phytochemicals to protect themselves from predators such as insects, or to prevent themselves from disease, or to withstand harsh environments.
As part of our evolution, humans have used healing plants that contain these phytochemicals to fight disease and improve health and metabolism.
And we are still learning about these natural products. For instance, the link between herbal ingredients and the gut microbiome. When we consume plants that contain these herbal ingredients, usually it is our microbiome that converts these phytochemicals into their active ingredients form. Which is another reason to make sure you have a healthy gut.
Who can benefit from using herbal medicines
Just as anyone can gain some benefit from eating a healthy diet. Herbal therapy can provide health benefits to just about anyone because herbs treat the whole person not their health conditions. But, there may be instances where you need to ask a qualified herbalist for advice, especially during pregnancy, breastfeeding or if you take certain medications. A medical herbalist will be able to explain which remedies are safe for you and your family to use.
Some herbal remedies interact with certain medications because they work similarly, affect the same cell receptors, or help to clear a drug from your body. So, there may be additive or inhibitory interactions. Meaning your prescription medication may appear stronger or be less effective, depending on the interaction.
A herbal practitioner learns about these interactions as a part of their training. Whereas your doctor probably did not learn about herbs at medical school. So, if you want to gain from the broad range of beneficial effects of natural health products but you're overwhelmed by the number of different forms of health care. Or, if you are not sure which remedy is safe for you when you take prescription medication, it is always best to ask a medical herbalist for advice.