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What is Herbal Medicine?

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

You may have heard people refer to herbal medicine as phytotherapy. The word ‘phyto’ and ‘therapy’ came to us from ancient Greece and mean ‘derived from or pertaining to plants’ and ‘curing or healing’, respectively. Phytotherapy therefore means ‘curing or healing with plants’. The terms medical herbalist/herbal medicine and phytotherapist/phytotherapy are used interchangeably.

Herbal medicines is the main component of traditional medicine, which have been used since thousands of years. Herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products, that contain as active ingredients parts of plants, or other plant materials, or combinations. Phytotherapy is a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment, and optimal health through the use of medical herbs that encourage individual’s inherent self-healing process. It seeks to combine up-to-date scientific advances in the study of human physiology with the knowledge about medical herbs, and traditional and empirical methods.


There is potential for confusion and inaccuracy when herbal medicine is included in the term Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Herbal medicine could be considered as a complementary to other forms of medicine, but it also offers an alternative to conventional biomedicine in terms of its approach and employed therapeutic compounds. It is also distinct from other CAM disciplines (like acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathy medicine, reiki, hypnotherapy) in the spectrum of conditions it seeks to treat, and in its record of safety and efficacy. The World Health Organization recognizes herbal medicine as the major form of healthcare for over 60% of the world’s population.


The professional associations comprising the European Herbal Practitioners Association drew up a definition of Western Herbal Medicine. Some of the core principles include:

  • a person-centred not disease-centred approach

  • understanding of the background to a person’s condition

  • treatment is directed at the potentially multifactorial roots of the condition not just the symptoms

  • treatment is driven by the importance placed upon signs and symptoms rather than purely a named diagnosis

  • lifestyle and nutritional factors are recognized as significant both in the causes of disease and on treatment outcomes.

  • whole plant medicines are used.

Practically, this means that herbal medicine may be able to help those “without” a clear diagnosis, and also those with complex multi-system diseases. This is most evident in so called ‘functional disorders’, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or the pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), where a pathological process is not found but a disorder to function is experienced by the patient as multiple symptoms. It also means that patients who may not have been helped by conventional drugs, or who have had unwanted side effects from those drugs, may potentially find help in the functional approach of the herbal medicine. Importantly, some patients are prevented from using standard conventional therapy due to other risk factors (e.g., not using hormone replacement therapy when there is a family history of breast cancer, or a genetic risk). Herbal medicine can help in such a cases, and there is mounting evidence demonstrating efficacy and safety in this alternative approach.


As biomedical research has focused on the search for new drugs isolated from natural substances, ancient ideas about illness and the plants originally used to treat illness have been largely discarded by modern medicine. There is a great emphasis for evidence-based medicine, and the empirical knowledge is ignored. However, much of herbal medicine is based on empirical observation and knowledge. The use of plants was observed and recorded by people in much closer contact with the natural world than we are now. It was empirical observation that led to plants being developed into drugs used in pain relief and surgical anaesthesia e.g., eye drops from Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) in eye surgery, or curare (Chondrodendron tomentosum) which acts effects the neurotransmitter acetylcholine allowing surgery to take place more easily while a patient is anaesthetised.


Most medicinal plants used by herbalists are extremely well tolerated and do not present problems for patients also taking conventional medicines. In fact, some herbs have been shown to improve the efficacy of conventional drugs e.g., barberry and turmeric reduce bacterial resistance to antibiotics. A range of medical plants are also considered to be safe for use in pregnancy and for young children. This is extremely valuable in circumstances when using conventional medication would be unsafe.


Herbal medicine has its origins in ancient cultures. Currently, many of herbs and nutrients are being scientifically studied in great detail. Herbal medicine is plant-based medicine which uses differing combinations of plants and parts of herbs (e.g., leaves, flowers, roots) to treat diseases and enhance general health and wellbeing. Phytotherapy is suitable for people of any age, including children. The treatment is personalised and focuses on the root causes of the illness, not just the symptoms.

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