Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some common questions about herbal medicine.
Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or Phytomedicine, refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots,leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside of conventional medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control, along with advances in clinical research, show the value of herbal medicine in the prevention and treatment of disease.
Plants have been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 B.C. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine). Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tend to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over-time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of drugs. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.
Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. In Germany, about 600 – 700 plant based medicines are available and are prescribed by some 70% of German physicians. In the past 20 years in the United States, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increased interest and use of herbal medicine.
In many cases, scientists aren’t sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients and may work together to produce a beneficial effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect its qualities, along with when the plant was harvested and processed.
The use of herbal supplements has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. That means herbal supplements, unlike prescription drugs, can be sold without being tested to prove that they are safe and effective, however they must be made according to good manufacturing practices.
Often, herbs may be used together because the combination is more effective and may have fewer side effects. Health care providers must take many factors into account when recommending herbs, including the species and variety of the plant, the plant’s habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants (including heavy metals and pesticides) present.
Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer, among others. Herbal supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider. For example, one study found that 90% of arthritic patients use alternative therapies, such as herbal medicine. Be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any herbs.
Buying standardized herbal supplements helps ensure that you will get the right dose and the effects similar to human clinical trials. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about which herbal supplements are best for your health concerns.
Nearly one-third of Americans use herbs. Unfortunately, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 70% of people taking herbal medicines (most of whom were well educated and had a higher-than-average income) were reluctant tell their doctors that they used complementary and alternative medicine.
Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions, and in some cases, may have fewer side effects than some conventional medicine. However, since they are unregulated, herbal products are often mislabeled and may contain additives and contaminants that aren’t listed on the label. Some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, and some are toxic if used improperly or at high doses. Taking herbs on your own increases these risks, so it is important to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal medicines.
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