Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, July 2011.
This factsheet is for people who are taking herbal remedies, or who would like information about them.
Herbal remedies are made from plants or plant extracts and aim to treat the symptoms of a wide range of conditions.
Your herbal practitioner will discuss your care before carrying out any treatment. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Several studies have looked at the outcomes of different herbal remedies on a variety of diseases and conditions.
Results from studies include:
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.
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:
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.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the About our Health Information page.
Publication date: July 2011
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