What Is Natural Herb Medicine?

Natural herb medicine refers to using a plant's seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Using herbs for healing has a long tradition of use before conventional medicine.

It is becoming more popular as clinical research show the value of herbal medicine for treating and preventing disease.

If you watch what animals do when they are sick, they will eat plants that their body needs. Every animal apparently knows its remedy and from our observations we gained most of our knowledge of herbs and their uses from them as well as Native American Indians and peoples from other cultures.

History Of Natural Herb Medicine

Plants had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants.

Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, and we owe a great deal to them, who for centuries, taught us how to cure chronic diseases with herbs.

Other peoples developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Research has discovered that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for similar 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. After some time, the use of a natural herb medicine declined in favor of drugs.

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 United States, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with interest in natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in natural herb medicine usage.

How Natural Herb Medicine Is Used

The use of herbal supplements has increased significantly 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 which means that herbal supplements -- unlike prescription drugs -- can be sold without being tested to prove that they are safe and effective.

However, natural herb medicine or herbal supplements must be made according to good manufacturing practices.

The most commonly used herbal supplements in the U.S. include:

  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species),
  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum),
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba),
  • Garlic (Allium sativum),
  • Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens),
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng; and
  • Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng),
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis),
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis),
  • Chamomile (Matricaria recutita),
  • Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium),
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale),
  • Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), and
  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

Herbs may be used together because the combination is more effective and may have fewer side effects. Each of these herbs must be used with moderation and for short periods of time.

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).

Some Of The Illnesses and Conditions
Where Natural Herb Medicine Is Used

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as:

  • asthma,
  • eczema,
  • premenstrual syndrome,
  • rheumatoid arthritis,
  • migraine,
  • menopausal symptoms,
  • chronic fatigue, and
  • irritable bowel syndrome,

plus many others.

Natural herb medicine or supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider or herbalist or someone who knows and has worked with herbs.

Some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, and some are toxic if used improperly or at high doses.

Taking natural herbs on your own increases your risk, so it is important to consult your doctor, pharmacist, herbalist or someone who works with herbs before taking a natural herb medicine.

Common Herbs and Their Uses

  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been used in traditional medicine to treat circulatory disorders and enhance memory. Although not all studies agree, ginkgo may be especially effective in treating dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) and poor circulation in the legs. It also shows promise for enhancing memory in older adults. Laboratory studies have shown that ginkgo improves blood circulation by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of blood platelets. This means that ginkgo may also increase the effect of some blood-thinning medications, including aspirin. People taking blood-thinning medications should ask their doctor before using ginkgo.
  • Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is said to elevate mood, well-being, and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies have found that kava may be useful in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders.

However, there is serious concern that kava may cause liver damage. It's not clear whether the kava itself caused liver damage in a few people or whether it was taking kava in combination with other drugs or herbs. It's also not clear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses, or only at higher doses.

Some countries have taken kava off the market. It remains available in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory in March of 2002 regarding the "rare" but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products.

  • Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is used by more than 2 million men in the United States for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland.

A number of studies suggest that the herb is effective for treating symptoms, including too-frequent urination, having trouble starting or maintaining urination, and needing to urinate during the night. But a well-conducted study published in the February 9, 2006 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine found that saw palmetto was no better than placebo in relieving the signs and symptoms of BPH.

  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is well known for its antidepressant effects. In general, most studies have shown that St. John's wort may be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, and has fewer side effects than most other prescription antidepressants.

Note St.John's Wort interacts with a wide variety of medications, including birth control pills, so it is important to take it only under the guidance of a health care provider.

  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a popular alternative to commonly prescribed medications for sleep problems because it is considered to be both safe and gentle. Unlike many prescription sleeping pills, Valerian may have fewer side effects such as morning drowsiness.
  • Echinacea preparations (from Echinacea purpurea and other Echinacea species) may improve the body's natural immunity.

Echinacea is one of the most commonly used herbal products, but studies are mixed as to whether it can help prevent or treat colds. But, it must be taken at the onset of a cold, not after and once the cold has diminished discontinue use. It is not recommended for long term use.

A meta-analysis of 14 clinical studies examining the effect of Echinacea on the incidence and duration of the common cold found that Echinacea supplements decreased the odds of getting a cold by 58%. It also shortened the duration of a cold by 1.4 days.

Reference for this article: "Herbs For You" by Dr.A.B. Howard

Return to healing natural oils from this natural herb medicine page

Note: Information on the traditional uses and properties of herbs provided on this site is for educational use only, and is not intended as medical advice. Every attempt has been made for accuracy, but none is guaranteed. Many traditional uses and properties of herbs have not been validated by the FDA. If you have any serious health concerns, you should always check with your health care practitioner before self-administering herbs.

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