Herbal medicine and homeopathy have similarities but they are not the same. They differ in both the remedy itself and also in how the remedy is chosen. Let me explain…
Herbal remedies can be either the medicinal plant material itself or an extract produced from it. In some cases, the remedy might be a whole plant including the leaves, stems and roots. More often a remedy is from a specific part of the plant such as the flowers, bark, leaves, berries, seeds or roots. For example, elderflowers, willow bark, peppermint leaves, goji berries, fennel seeds and dandelion roots are all herbal medicines.
So, how do we use these plants to make herbal medicine? We can sometimes extract the herbs with just water, as in making a herbal tea, infusion or decoction. Or, we can make a tincture using a mixture of alcohol and water. There are other herbal preparations but as a herbalist, the herbal infusions and tinctures are the extracts I use most often.
Different species of plants contain different, sometimes complex and often unique chemical compounds with pharmacological properties. So, individual herbs are carefully chosen based on their medicinal effects in the body.
Herbalists produce a remedy for the individual based usually, but not always on a mixture of several different herbs.
The combination of several herbs provides synergy so that the action of the mixture is greater than the sum of the medicinal actions of the individual herbs.
The aim is not only to reduce symptoms but also to improve the health of the person so that the body can heal itself, in fact, many herbal remedies have a tonic action on the tissues or the organs of the body and were used this way in ancient traditions of medicine.
Herbalists use herbal remedies to improve the function of cells, tissues, organs and the whole body. In other words, herbalists practice functional medicine.
Despite their medicinal properties, some herbal remedies are mild and gentle enough to be consumed as foods. In this category, I am thinking about herbs such as oats, slippery elm, artichoke, onion, lemon, dandelion leaf, cranberries and pomegranate. As well as all the culinary herbs and spices, garlic, ginger, turmeric, thyme, rosemary, fenugreek, peppermint, parsley, mustard and horseradish to name a few. Though people enjoy herbs such as these in or with meals you wouldn’t want to overdo intake of horseradish for example.
There are also several stronger acting herbs that should be used with caution and in small doses. Some herbal remedies can have unwanted side effects in the body if used inappropriately. And, because they have pharmacological actions similar in some cases to pharmaceuticals they can interact with drugs prescribed by your doctor
Medical herbalists are trained in the safe and effective use of herbal medicines including when it is safe to use them alongside conventional medicines.
Homeopathic medicines can also be derived from plant material, as well as minerals and other compounds. In fact, some of the same plants are used in herbal medicine and homeopathic medicine. For example, chamomile and arnica are medicinal plants that are used in both herbal medicine and homeopathic medicine.
However, one big difference between the herbal remedy and the homeopathic remedy is the concentration of the medicine. Whilst herbal medicine has a measurable amount of active constituents in the remedy homeopathic medicine is prepared in such a way that the remedy itself contains little or nothing of the active constituents. Homeopathic medicine is produced by extracting the plant or other material and then diluting several times using a specific and precise procedure to create the final remedy.
The homeopathic remedy can then be used as drops or formed into pills, tablets or lozenges.
Another major way that homeopathic medicine differs from herbal medicine is the way the remedy is chosen, specifically the homeopathic remedy which most closely matches the symptoms. In fact, if this extremely diluted version of the remedy were given in its more concentrated form, then it would produce the exact same symptoms that the diluted remedy is said to resolve.
Since homeopathic remedies are usually very dilute, even inert, this form of medicine is generally regarded as very safe and without side effects.
In fact, arnica is a good example of a remedy that is used in both types of medicine but in a very different form. In herbal medicine, arnica is a useful topical remedy that helps to speed the healing of bruises and reduces swellings. However, the herbal remedy must not be used internally or on broken skin due to the potential for side effects. On the other hand, the homeopathic remedy arnica is safely used internally as it is in a much-diluted form.
Although homeopathic medicine and herbal medicine have similarities, they do differ, especially in the strength of the remedy. Herbal medicine has a reputation as a safe and gentle form of medicine but should be used with care as side effects can occur. It is probably best to consult professional herbalist or homeopath to get the best out of both these types of alternative medicine.