Herbal remedies

About herbal remedies

Herbal remedies are made from plant materials that are used to treat disease and help maintain good health. They have been used since the beginning of human history. There are different traditions that use plants as remedies.

  • Ayurveda. This Indian tradition uses herbal remedies, yoga, massage, diet and meditation.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine. This works on similar principles as Ayurveda and uses herbs to boost or disperse qi (energy).
  • Kampo. This Japanese tradition uses similar techniques to Chinese medicine and involves the study of herbs to help treat illness.
  • Traditional Tibetan medicine. This uses herbal remedies as well as diet changes and therapies such as acupuncture to help treat illness.
  • Unani-tibb. This Indian tradition has an emphasis on restoring balance by encouraging healing from within.
  • Western herbal medicine. This uses herbal remedies and focuses on the person as a whole, not the illness.

This factsheet will focus on Western herbal medicine.

Herbal remedies (often referred to as herbal medicines) have been used in the UK for centuries. Today they are used mostly as a complementary treatment (one given alongside conventional treatments).

Many conventional medicines actually originate from a single active ingredient of a plant. For example, the painkiller aspirin comes from the bark of willow trees, and digoxin (a medicine used to treat heart failure) comes from the foxglove plant. Scientists often try to separate a single active ingredient of a plant and produce it on a large scale in a laboratory.

This is the opposite of herbal remedies, which may contain dozens of different ingredients. Herbalists believe that all the elements are in balance within a plant and so it's important to keep them together. They say that the different components are made more powerful through the presence of the others. Herbal remedies may interact with other medicines and can have side-effects.

You can treat yourself with herbal remedies and there is a huge range available as tablets, capsules, ointments and creams. You can buy these in health food shops, pharmacies and even supermarkets. For more serious health problems, you may want to see a trained herbal practitioner (herbalist).

Where can I find a herbal practitioner?

A herbal practitioner should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of herbal remedies. However, currently the title of herbal practitioner isn't protected. This means that anyone can call him or herself a herbal practitioner or herbalist, regardless of what training he or she has done.

There are professional bodies that herbal practitioners can join, which set standards for the practice of herbal medicine. You can find a registered herbal practitioner on the National Institute of Medical Herbalists website for example, which is a UK regulator for medical herbalists. Members must have trained for at least three years, be insured and follow the institute's code of conduct. You can also search for a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner on the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine website, which maintains a register of practising members.

Some herbal practitioners work alongside doctors and your GP may be able to refer you, but this is likely to be to a private practitioner.

About herbal remedy treatment

It's important to visit your GP before having herbal remedy treatment to help diagnose your condition and to ensure that herbal remedies are an appropriate treatment for you.

If you decide to visit a herbal practitioner, you will first have a detailed consultation. The herbal practitioner will ask you questions about your medical history, diet and lifestyle. He or she may also examine you. You can ask any questions you might have.

Your initial consultation will last about an hour. If you have any further appointments, they will be shorter than the first, as your herbal practitioner will already have your background information.

Your herbal practitioner may suggest changes to your lifestyle and diet as well as prescribe herbal remedies. He or she may prescribe a remedy that is made up of several different herbs to fit your individual needs. The remedy will be individual to you and based on your characteristics.

There are many forms that your remedy may come in, such as syrups, capsules, creams or tinctures (a blend of herbal extracts in an alcohol/water base). It's also possible for you to take remedies as an infusion (tea) or juice.

You may have follow-up appointments every two to three weeks to monitor your progress. However, this will depend on your circumstances.

Are herbal remedies effective?

Several studies have looked at the outcomes of different herbal remedies on a variety of diseases and conditions.

Results from studies include:

  • St John's wort can alleviate depression
  • echinacea may prevent or reduce the duration of a cold in adults
  • an extract of hawthorn, used in addition to conventional treatments, can benefit people with chronic heart failure
  • ginger can relieve the sensation of feeling sick and vomiting
  • Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) and Salvia officinalis (sage) may improve mental ability in people with Alzheimer's disease
  • horse chestnut seed extract can treat the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency (where blood in your veins doesn't flow properly)

The scientific evidence for the use of herbal remedies is often conflicting and although the symptoms of some illnesses improve with some herbal remedies, the best evidence doesn’t prove that herbal remedies cure illnesses. There is good evidence to show that St John's wort works for depression. Prescribing specific herbal mixtures for individual patients' characteristics hasn't been shown to be effective.

What are the risks?

You may find herbal remedies helpful but it's important to remember that natural doesn't mean harmless. Herbal remedies contain active ingredients and may interact with other medicines or cause side-effects. Don’t start taking any herbal remedies without speaking to your GP or pharmacist first. It's also important not to stop taking any prescribed medicine without speaking to your GP, and not to exceed the recommended dose of herbal medicines.

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the treatment. Side-effects of herbal remedies may include:

  • feeling or being sick
  • dizziness

There have been reports of fatal poisonous effects with some herbal remedies. For example, kava, which comes from a member of the pepper family and is used in some countries to treat conditions such as anxiety and tension, is suspected to cause severe liver poisoning. Some Chinese herbal remedies have also been shown to cause serious kidney problems.

If you have an adverse reaction to a herbal remedy, there is a system called the Yellow Card Scheme for reporting and recording these to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). You can do this yourself or your GP can do it for you.

What qualifications does a herbal practitioner need?

Answer

It's important that you find a trained practitioner who is registered with a professional body. At the moment, anyone in the UK can call themselves a herbal practitioner or herbalist, even if they don't have professional qualifications or experience.

Explanation

There are a number of complementary therapies that use herbs as remedies including Western herbal medicine and Chinese herbal medicine. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) and the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) are the two main regulatory and registering bodies for herbal medicine in the UK.

The NIMH is the main organisation for medical herbal practitioners in the UK. Members are required to complete a Batchelor of Science (BSc) degree in herbal medicine at an accredited college or university. The degree course involves 500 hours of supervised clinical training and theory-based work. Members of the NIMH must carry out a continuing professional development programme to ensure that they maintain a high standard of practice. Medical herbalists are qualified to understand which herbs interact with conventional medicines.

The RCHM is the professional body for Chinese herbal medicine in the UK. Members of the RCHM must complete a course in Chinese herbal medicine at a college affiliated to the RCHM, or pass an application and interview process if they have graduated from a course overseas. Members are required to follow the RCHM code of ethics and use herbal products from suppliers who have been approved by the RCHM. Members must follow a continuing professional development programme to maintain their knowledge and skills.

It's important that you find a qualified practitioner as some herbs may interact with conventional medicines. Although herbs are natural, they can still result in serious side-effects if used incorrectly. Side-effects are the unwanted, but mostly temporary effects you may get after having treatment.

Members of the NIMH can give you advice on any potential interaction between herbs and conventional medicines. They will also know about common adverse reactions to some herbs. Let your GP know that you're planning to use herbal remedies too so that he or she can tell you about potential interactions with any medicines you're taking.

How much does the treatment cost?

Answer

There are no fixed prices for treatment or herbs. The cost will vary depending on your individual practitioner, the number of herbs you are prescribed and where you receive your treatment in the UK.

Explanation

Ask your practitioner about the cost of treatment when you book your appointment. He or she will talk you through the cost in more detail at your initial consultation, after assessing your condition and deciding which herbs to prescribe.

Your first consultation will usually cost between £40 and £80 for an hour. You may have follow-up appointments every two to three weeks to review your progress. These appointments are shorter so will cost less, usually around £30.

How many treatment sessions will I need?

Answer

There is no standard course of treatment and the number of sessions you will need depends on your health condition.

Explanation

The number of sessions you will need depends on your current symptoms and how long you've had the condition. It will also depend on the severity of your condition and how your condition progresses with the treatment.

Your practitioner will regularly review your progress to give you an idea of the length of treatment he or she thinks you will need. Some herbs may take longer to have an effect on the body than conventional medicines so you might not see an improvement in your condition for weeks or months – your herbal practitioner will be able to advise you. Take this information into account when thinking about the cost of your treatment.