Herbal medicine: types, uses and safety


Herbal remedies or supplements are natural compounds from the leaves, bark, roots, seeds, or flowers of plants that people can use for medicinal purposes. They may offer therapeutic benefits when people use them as complementary medicine.

Herbal medicines contain active ingredients from natural plants. Their use dates back thousands of years, even before the invention of conventional medicine.

While many people prefer herbal remedies over certain medications prescribed by a doctor, others may use them in combination with prescription and over-the-counter medications.

This article describes the different types of herbal medicines, their uses, safety precautions, and when to contact a doctor.

herbal medicines are natural botanicals, derived from plants, that people can use to treat and prevent disease.

They are part of a category of treatments called complementary and alternative medicine. Currently, thousands of herbal medicine products are available over the counter in the United States.

Searching for a 2018 Focus Group Study suggests that people may use herbal medicine because they are dissatisfied with conventional medicine. They may also use herbal medicines to:

  • treat mild and moderate ailments
  • start treatment before taking conventional medications

Other common uses include:

However, a 2017 report published in the Patient Experience Journal notes that factors associated with the use of herbal medicines include:

  • age over 70
  • high school diplomas
  • use of over-the-counter (OTC) medications
  • use of a mail-order pharmacy

The World Health Organization estimates that 88% of countries use herbal medicine, noting that 40% of pharmaceutical drugs and blockbuster drugs, including aspirin and artemisinin, come from herbal medicine.

Learn more about nine herbs for anxiety.

How a person takes herbal supplements depends on the form. They are available in the form of tablets, capsules, herbal teas, powders, extracts and fresh or dried herbs.

A person can take herbal supplements by:

  • swallow them in the form of pills, powders, or tinctures
  • apply them to the skin in the form of gels and lotions
  • add them to the bath water
  • drink them like teas

Dosages of some herbal supplements can be difficult to obtain. Many factors can affect the quality of herbal supplements, including growing conditions, age, and preparation of the plant.

Therefore, there is no standardized way to provide correct dosage. If a person is considering taking an herbal supplement, they should avoid self-prescription and discuss it with a doctor first.

The doctor will ask about a person’s medical condition and determine the best dosage for the desired pharmacological effect.

Since conventional physicians may not have received much education in herbal medicine, a person may instead want to see a licensed naturopathic doctor, licensed acupuncturist, or other qualified herbal medicine practitioner.

A person should speak with a doctor before taking herbal medicines. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns that supplements can increase or decrease the effects and side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Doctors can advise people about drug interactions to watch out for.

Safe use of herbal medicine also includes:

  • carefully follow the instructions on the label
  • taking only the recommended dose
  • stop taking an herbal supplement if it is ineffective

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that taking herbal remedies may not be suitable for a person if they are:

  • Pregnant
  • breastfeeding
  • taking other prescription or over-the-counter medications
  • over 65
  • under 18
  • endure a surgery

The NHS also notes that anyone taking herbal medicines should disclose this to their doctor before surgery. This is because some herbal medicines can interact with anesthetic medicines and affect blood pressure and blood clotting during and after surgery.

Some people use herbal supplements to treat specific symptoms, although there isn’t much formal research on these uses. The table below lists some herbal supplements and some conditions they may benefit from.

Using supplements can be dangerous for people who have certain health conditions or are taking medication. People who are breastfeeding or pregnant may want to avoid herbal supplements because there is very little research on their effects.

Always consult a doctor before taking herbal supplements.

Learn about eight herbs and supplements for depression.

Does the FDA approve herbal medicines?

No, the FDA does not approve herbal medicines. This is because the FDA does not consider herbal medicines. Instead, he views them as dietary supplements for complementary therapy.

Therefore, herbal medicines are not subject to the same testing, labeling and manufacturing standards as traditional prescription and over-the-counter medicines. However, the FDA regulates herbal medicines to ensure that they meet specific criteria and are safe for human consumption.

Is herbal medicine safe?

Not necessarily. The NHS warns that ‘natural’ does not mean safe if a person uses a product without a doctor’s prescription.

This is because some herbs can have adverse drug interactions with other medications. Some can also cause deadly side effects. A person should always consult a doctor before taking supplements if they have a medical condition or are taking prescribed medications.

A person should stop using an herbal supplement and contact a doctor immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms:

They should also see a doctor if they overdose on any herbal supplement.

If a person develops symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, they or others around them should immediately call 911 or the local emergency number.

According to a 2017 study published in American family physician40-60% of American adults use dietary supplements, including herbal medicines, and 25% report taking herbal supplements with prescription medications.

The authors note that many people who use herbal supplements do not disclose it to their doctor. This affects the clinical evaluation and safety of specific herbal supplement drug interactions.

To help healthcare professionals better assess the interactions of herbal supplements in the body, a person should:

  • disclose any herbal supplements they use to their doctor
  • document their symptoms
  • stop using herbal supplements if symptoms do not improve
  • avoiding an overdose of herbal supplements
  • report any worsening of symptoms to their doctor

Herbal medicines or supplements are natural compounds made from parts of plants. Manufacturers extract the active ingredients from the leaves, bark, roots, seeds or flowers of plants.

Herbal supplements are available in many forms, such as pills, teas, extracts, and powders. People use them to treat chronic conditions, including anxiety, sleep problems, and low sex drive.

Herbal supplements are not FDA approved and some natural products can be dangerous. Herbal supplements can cause adverse drug reactions, so a person should consult a doctor before taking them if they are also taking prescription medications.


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