What is Herbal Medicine?

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  • Written By: Margo Upson
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Herbal medicine is the oldest type of health care. People have looked to herbs as cures for thousands of years. Alternative medicine is moving into the mainstream of medical communities, with even a large number of prescription medications containing herbs.

Herbal medicine is the ancient practice of using plants and plant extracts to treat or prevent medical conditions. There are records of Sumerians using herbal medicine in 5,000 B.C. The World Health Organization estimates that as much as 80% of the world’s population is currently using some type of herbal treatment.

Herbal medicines may be prepared in many ways. Topical treatments, or ointments, are rubbed into the skin. Tisanes, where the herb is soaked in hot water, are usually drunk as teas, such as chamomile. Extracts of herbs may be used in numerous ways: as flavorings for food (peppermint), as aromatherapy (lavender), or dried into caplets. Dried herbs, or some extracts, can be used as aromatherapy.


Many herbal remedies are commonly found in homes. Cranberry can help to treat and prevent urinary tract infection in women. Ginger and peppermint both help to relieve upset stomachs. Echinacea may help to shorten the duration of the common cold. Willow bark contains aspirin, and can be used to treat pain. Foxglove, now used in the cardiac drug digitalis, has been used for centuries to improve heart function. Similarly, the herb Ephedra sinica has been used in Asian communities for generations for its ability to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. Ephedrine, the chemical taken from the herb, is used to treat asthma.

The effectiveness of herbal medicine is still being debated by the professional medical community. While some herbs have been proven to work effectively, there is a lot of testing still being done. The correct dosage of herbal remedies also has to be determined. For some herbs, taking too much can be fatal. Herbal remedies have been used, with positive results, for thousands of years. However, modern medical practices require standards in place before they can be prescribed for medical use.

Alternative medicine, including herbal remedies, is seeing a new popularity as the internet makes researching herbs easier. A renewed interest in healthy living has also contributed, as people search for ways to optimize their health through herbs. Many herbal remedies are safe, but any medical treatment should still be overseen by a licensed health care professional.


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Post 3

@umbra21 - That's why the popularity of herbal teas and other remedies makes me nervous. People seem to think because they are natural that they are harmless, but if anything is strong enough to have positive effects, it's strong enough to have negative ones as well, particularly if you have too much.

Post 2

@KoiwiGal - That's not exactly true. I mean there is always a way to commercialize something and the popularity of Chinese herbal medicines in particular is proof of that. You can buy a whole range of them in stores and they are often more expensive than over the counter drugs.

I think the main reason that a lot of herbal remedies remain controversial is because they simply aren't as effective as modern medications. There's no point in testing the effectiveness of a particular root in curing headaches if there is already a pill that will definitely cure headaches much faster and more safely.

That's the other issue. With herbs it's almost impossible to ensure that you are getting a safe and effective dosage because every plant is different. If it's a strong medication, you could overdose. If it's a weak one, you might not have enough to make a difference.

Post 1

The only reason that herbal remedies are not more widely accepted by the medical community is that they have no funding to test them properly with studies. Unless something is going to be used in a medicine or in a way that can be commercialized, no company is going to waste money testing it as thoroughly as the government demands for it to be called a medicine.

There are plenty of natural remedies that are as effective as something out of a pill bottle, but because no one wants to spend money on proving that, they remain on the fringes of medicine.

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