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Herbal Remedies

Herbal Remedies

Alternate Names

  • medicinal herbs
  • phytopharmaceuticals


The term herbal remedy applies to any medicinal product made from a plant or part of a plant. These parts can include the leaves, flowers, stems, roots, seeds, fruit, or bark. The plant can be dried, powdered and used directly in capsules or tablets. The plant can also be soaked in a liquid (usually water or alcohol) to remove certain ingredients which are then called an extract.


Herbal remedies are one of the most controversial classes of complementary medicine. There are several reasons for this. Some herbal remedies can have severe and even fatal side effects. More commonly, though, the problem is a lack of quality control and little standardizing when herbs are prepared.
Herbal medicine is not a regulated health profession in the United States. No government agency is responsible for providing a license to those who practice herbal medicine. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, regulates herbal remedies very differently from other drugs and medicines. The FDA can remove from the market any herbal product that it can demonstrate to be unsafe.
Unlike pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of herbal remedies and dietary supplements are not required to prove how safe or effective their products are. They cannot make claims that a herbal remedy can cure a disease. They may make statements about how a herbal remedy might affect the body's function or structure. One study showed that 60% of the ginseng products sampled contained so little ginseng that they were essentially inactive.
In another study, researchers found that 2 out of 3 feverfew products tested contained no feverfew. Some herbal products have been found to contain prescription medicines but were not labeled as such. More research is being conducted on herbal remedies. As the results of this research becomes available, people will have better evidence by which to make decisions about what herbal remedies may work and be safe.
Most Frequently Asked Questions About the Use of Herbal Remedies
Why use herbal remedies?

Many people are attracted to herbal remedies believing they are a natural option for their health concerns. Every culture on earth includes the use of certain herbs in their traditional medicine. Some of these work, as evidenced by the fact that 75% of all patented prescription medicines originally came from herbs. However, the herbal remedies themselves cannot be patented because they are natural substances.

Are herbs safe?
Herbs are often powerful medicines and should be treated as such.
  • Do not take the identity of an herb for granted.
  • Never use herbs to self-treat for serious medical conditions or persistent symptoms.
  • Do not use herbs in place of medicines prescribed by a healthcare professional.
  • Never take more than the recommended dosage of any herbal preparation.
  • Stop taking all herbs at least 2 weeks before surgery.
  • Start with low dosages because it's not uncommon for people to be sensitive to herbs.
  • One should tell each healthcare professional, including the pharmacist, about any herbal remedies he or she is taking.
  • If one is taking over-the-counter or prescription drugs, he or she should talk to the healthcare professionals before taking herbal remedies, as these can interact negatively with one another.
  • Stop taking an herb right away if there are any side effects.
  • Report side effects immediately to the healthcare professionals and to the FDA's Med Watch line at 1-800-332-1088.
  • Choose products that give the Latin botanical name and the quantity of herb contained in them.
The March of Dimes has issued a statement linking some herbal remedies to birth defects and miscarriage. The association recommends that pregnant women avoid all herbal remedies unless advised otherwise by their healthcare professionals
The American Society of Anesthesiologists has issued cautions about herbal remedies. Herbs can interact with medicines used before, during, and after surgery. A recent study focused on the effects of echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, kava, St. John's wort, and valerian. It is best to stop taking all herbal remedies at least 2 weeks before planned surgery. Any herbal remedies taken should be mentioned to the surgeon and anesthesiologist.
How do herbal remedies work?
Despite extensive research and analysis, scientists often do not know the name of the active chemical ingredient in herbal remedies. When they have identified the active ingredients, they often don't know how they work. Herbs can also contain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and other trace elements. Herbalists have always claimed that the complex mixture in herbal remedies is an example of the whole thing being better than the sum of its individual parts. So, they would claim that it does not matter that we do not know which particular ingredient is the active one.
How are herbal remedies prescribed and classified?
Herbal remedies are often prescribed by herbalists to support body systems rather than to relieve symptoms of disease. For example, laxatives such as dandelion root are prescribed to aid the digestive system. Herbs are chosen for the individual, not the illness.
How are herbal remedies prepared and taken?
Herbal remedies are taken orally or applied to the skin. Fresh herbs can also be incorporated into the diet. The following is a list of some methods of herbal treatment.
  • Tinctures are made by soaking the flowers, leaves, or roots of the chosen herbs in alcohol. Tinctures keep well and are easy to store.
  • Infusions are less concentrated than tinctures. Infusions are made by soaking an herb in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. The resulting infusion can be used as a tea, or it can be applied externally to the skin.
  • Cold infusion involves soaking an herb in cold water for a long period, from 2 to 12 hours. It can then be either swallowed or applied to the skin.
  • Decoctions are similar to infusions but are made from roots, barks, nuts, and seeds.
  • A wash is an external application of a cooled tea.
  • A poultice is a paste made from bruised fresh herbs or dried herbs moistened with hot water. It is placed first on a clean piece of cotton and then on the affected area.
Which problems can herbal remedies help?
Herbal remedies seem particularly effective with skin conditions such as eczema. However, it is important to remember that some people can be allergic to various plant parts. Herbal remedies are also used for urinary problems such as urinary tract infection and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Herbs cannot reverse the damage caused by serious or life-threatening diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or AIDS. However, they can relieve the symptoms, support the immune system, and improve feelings of well-being.
How much is enough?
When preparing herbs for medicinal use, it is important to consult a healthcare professional. Herbs have a powerful effect on the body. Plant freshness and potency often will vary. Commercial products similarly vary widely in quality. Unfortunately, very little is known about the best dose of any particular herbal remedy.


Blumenthal, M., et al., eds. (1998). Klein, S., and Rister, R.S., translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council

Heptinstall, S.; et al. (1992) Estimation of commercial and authenticated feverfew products. Journal of Pharmacology, 44:391-95.

Pelletier, K. The Best Alternative Medicine : What Works? What Does Not? Simon&Schuster, NY 2000

1. Boullata JI, Nace AM. Safely issues with herbal medicine. Pharmacother 2000;20(3):257-269.

The Incredible Healing Power of Herbs, Daniel P. Ray&Susan Ambrosina

The One Spirit Encyclopedia of Complementary health, Nikki Bradford

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Natural Remedies, C. Norman Shealy

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