Herbal medicines are medicines that are plant-based, usually made from combinations of plant parts like leaves, flowers or roots. The different parts of the plant may have different medicinal uses, and extracting the medicinal qualities of a plant can vary depending on the plant itself. Fresh and dried plant materials are used, depending on the herb or condition being treated. People in the U.S. are relatively receptive to herbal medicines, and the Journal of Patient Experience reports that ⅓ of Americans use herbal medicines regularly, either contained in their prescription medications or in over-the-counter options.
Some common herbal medications include:
- Echinacea. Used to address or prevent colds, flu, and infections and even for wound healing. Some studies have also shown that long-term use can affect the body’s immune system. It should not be used with medicines that can cause liver problems, and people allergic to plants in the daisy family (ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies) may have an allergic reaction to Echinacea.
- Chamomile. Most commonly use as a sedative for anxiety and relaxation, chamomile is also used for wound healing and to reduce inflammation or swelling. Chamomile is usually taken as tea or applied as a compress. It may increase drowsiness caused by medicines or other herbs or supplements. Chamomile may interfere with the way the body uses some medicines, causing too high a level of the medicine in some people.
- Garlic. No, garlic doesn’t just chase vampires away, it’s also used as an herbal medicine! Normally used for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, it also has antimicrobial effects. Researchers are even testing garlic’s possible role in preventing cancer.
- Ginger. Commonly and effectively used to ease nausea and motion sickness, ginger can also relieve nausea caused by pregnancy or chemotherapy.
- Ginseng. Known throughout the world as a tonic or even aphrodisiac, even by some as as a cure-all, ginseng is sold in great quantities around the world. The FDA recommends people with diabetes should not use ginseng. Valerian. Specifically, valerian root is used to treat sleeplessness and to help with anxiety. Valerian is even used as a flavoring for root beer and other foods. Like chamomile, valerian can cause drowsiness.
When taken to address medical issues, herbs are used in various ways, including several methods of ingestion or topical applications. Herbal preparations are normally used in one of the following ways:
- Powders taken internally and applied externally, in loose form, or in capsules.
- Herb juices.
- Herb-based topical creams.
- Herbal steam inhalations (with herbs like eucalyptus).
- Baths or skin washes.
When it comes to actual use of herbal medicines, there is more common herbal use among patients with increased age, and also with increased education. Often referred to as holistic or integrative providers, there is an increasing interest among medical professionals in combining traditional medicine with herbal treatments as well. Known professionally as CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), this is a growing trend, with nearly half of all U.S. patients reporting the use of holistic medical care (Journal of Patient Experience).
Herbal medicine has its origins in ancient cultures, and is often used to enhance general health and well-being. However, some herbs have powerful ingredients and should be taken with the same level of caution as pharmaceutical medications. In fact, many pharmaceutical medications are simply man-made versions of naturally occurring compounds found in plants. For example, the heart drug digitalis was derived from the foxglove plant.
It’s important to exercise caution and talk to your doctor when considering herbal medication use. “Natural” does not always equal “safe,” so take care to follow the instructions on any herbal medicine you take. Herbal medications and supplements may interact in harmful ways with over-the-counter or prescription medicines you are taking (St. John’s Wort is famous for this). If pregnant or nursing, always consult your doctor before starting any new medication.