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herbal remedies

Alternative Names
medicinal herbs, herbal medications, Western herbal medication, complementary therapies, alternative therapies, phytomedication, phytopharmaceutical, botanical medications, herbology

The term herbal remedy applies to any plant or part of a plant that is used to make medicinal products. The parts of plants used in herbal remedies can include the leaves, flowers, stems, roots, seeds, fruit, or bark. Herbal remedies are used to:
  • alleviate disease
  • prevent disease from recurring
  • detoxify the system
  • support the immune system
  • maintain a state of balance
What is the information for this topic?
Herbal remedies are one of the most controversial classes of complementary medication. There are several reasons for this. More and more people are using herbal remedies. There is a lack of quality control and standardization in the preparation of herbal remedies. And some herbal remedies can have severe and even fatal side effects.

The best current research on the safety and effectiveness of herbal remedies is an extensive book published by the German government's Commission E. The Commission E in Germany acts similarly to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia. The Commission E book contains a review of the scientific research on certain herbal therapies. It also provides information about the effectiveness of herbs for certain diseases and conditions. It also includes information about the most common side effects of herbs. In 1998, this book was translated into English in both written form and electronic form. It is considered one of the best texts on herbal medication and is available from the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, under the title of The Complete Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medications, edited by Mark Blumenthal.

Most Frequently Asked Questions About the Use of Herbal Remedies

Why use herbal remedies?

Many people find that herbal remedies are a natural solution for their health concerns. Because they are natural substances, herbs cannot be patented, so fierce competition keeps prices affordable.

It is important to remember that there is not a culture on earth that does not include the use of herbs as medication in its historical records. The major pharmaceutical companies derive 75% of all patented prescription medications from herbs. They continue to spend millions of dollars in their search for new herbs and new uses for well-known herbal remedies.

Are herbs safe?

Herbs are powerful medications and should be treated as such.
  • Never take the identity of an herb for granted.
  • Never use herbs to self-treat for serious medical conditions or persistent symptoms.
  • Never use herbs as a substitute for medications prescribed by a doctor.
  • Never take more than the recommended dosage of any herbal preparation.
  • Always stop taking all herbs at least 2 weeks before surgery.
  • Always start with low dosages because herb sensitivity is common.
  • Always tell the doctor and pharmacist about any herbal remedies being taken. This is very important, because people who have some diseases should not take certain herbs.
  • Always stop taking an herb immediately if there are any side effects.
  • Always report side effects immediately to the doctor.
  • Always choose products that give the Latin botanical name and the quantity of herb contained.
Young children and pregnant or breast-feeding women should not take herbs in medicinal dosages unless they have been directed to do so by their doctor.

How do herbal remedies work?

Despite extensive research and analysis, scientists are still unable to identify every chemical component of herbs and have not been able to reproduce most of them synthetically. Scientists have not been able to determine the ways many herbs exert their effects. They have discovered, however, that herbs contain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, as well as trace elements and healing agents such as tannins, bitters, and volatile oils. Herbalists have always believed that an herb is greater than the sum of its parts.

How are herbal remedies prescribed and classified?

Herbs and medications are classified in a similar manner, but herbs are often prescribed to support body systems rather than to relieve symptoms of disease. For example, laxatives such as dandelion root and yellow dock are prescribed to aid the digestive system. Diuretics such as dandelion leaf are prescribed to aid the urinary system if the complaint is fluid retention. The main difference between an herbal prescription and a pharmaceutical prescription is that the herbs are chosen for the individual, not the illness.

How are herbal remedies prepared and taken?

Herbal remedies are prescribed to be taken internally or applied to the skin. They come as tinctures, creams, compresses, poultices, infusions, decoctions, tablets, and as capsules and oils to add to the bath. Fresh herbs can also be incorporated into the diet. The following is a list of some methods of herbal treatment.
  • Tinctures are the most common type of internal remedy prescribed. They are made by soaking the flowers, leaves, or roots of the chosen herbs in alcohol to extract and preserve their useful properties. Tinctures keep well, are easy to store, and are used in small amounts.
  • Infusions are less concentrated than tinctures and are an easy way to take herbs at home. 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 a 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 cooled tea.
  • A poultice is a paste made from bruised fresh herbs or dried herbs moistened with hot water. The herb paste is placed on a clean piece of cotton and placed on the affected area with a bandage.

Which problems can herbal remedies help?

Herbal remedies can help with most disorders, but they do seem particularly effective with skin conditions such as eczema, urinary problems such as urinary tract infection, and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Herbal remedies 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, or deciding just how much to take for a specific complaint, it is important to consult a doctor. Herbs have a powerful effect on the body. Plant freshness and potency often will vary.

Author: Dr. Karen Wolfe, MBBS, MA
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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