How Does Herbal Medicine Work?


Use our concise guide to understanding the effectiveness of herbs as medicine and the development of modern pharmaceutical medicine from these herbs.



What is Herbal Medicine?


how1Herbal medicine is the use of plants as medicine.  We use plants in dried or fresh form (for instance as teas), as tinctures, whereby the constituents are extracted in alcohol, or as essential oils and resins.  Once the range of constituents is extracted they are used internally (tinctures, syrups, teas or tablets) or as creams, salves, pessaries, ointments etc.  At one time in human history, plants provided almost the only pharmacy available, and herbal medicine developed over thousands of years as a medical approach based on observation, experience, and, undoubtedly, some experimentation.  Today, most of our conventional drugs, synthesised in laboratories, owe their origins to plants.

Plants as medicine?

Herbs grow in the same environment as humans, and are subject to some of the same threats such as bacterial infections or physical injuries.  The mix of constituents that we use in herbal medicine comprises their ‘secondary metabolites’, those chemicals which the plants developed to deal with, for instance, infections and injuries.  It was observed over the ages that those same secondary metabolites which keep the plant thriving, also help humans (and animals) weather similar attacks.  Resins, for instance, which help a tree heal injuries to its bark, and fight microbial or bacterial infection, are remarkably effective at healing human skin or membrane injuries.  These resins are now used in our creams and salves, or for internal membrane repair in our tinctures and teas.

How did modern pharmaceutical medicine develop?

The development of conventional medicine saw plants being analysed for their ‘active ingredients’, which were then recreated in labs.  Willow bark, for instance, was analysed and its anti-inflammatory component salicylic acid was extracted (becoming acetyl salicylic acid in the process) – this then became our common aspirin, synthesised in the lab.  Thus, enormously useful drugs were developed.

Although the development of some of the conventional drugs we have today was amazingly effective, we made one huge error:  we assumed that the effect of plant medicine would be due to ‘active isolated constituents’ – if only we could get hold of that one thing that made it ‘work’, we could make it cheaply and quickly in the lab!  As many studies have shown, however, the effect of plant medicine is not due to one or even two active constituents, but due to the synergy of tens and even hundreds of constituents which assist each other in chemical effect, uptake, and our tolerance of the medicine in the body.

This error had two effects:  firstly, in the lab, the ‘active constituents’ were often not as active as hoped; they were isolated from other constituents which added to their effect and bio-availability.  Secondly, there were often significant side effects associated with using just one constituent in extremely large doses.

In Western herbal medicine, we use the whole plant, and therefore the mix of all its constituents. This seems to mitigate against toxicity, increases the effectiveness of a plant as its constituents are taken together, and makes them more easily absorbed in our bodies.  We see this particularly in plants which have been used through the ages, like Dandelion or Calendula.

Weighing it up

how2There are times when we undoubtedly need conventional medicine, and times when herbal medicine would be a better, safer, choice.

Conventional medicine works on the premise of combating disease, killing off invaders (bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens), and repairing injuries, rather than enhancing or restoring normal functioning.  It can work very fast – necessary in emergency cases – and pack a very powerful punch – sometimes a very good thing.  In the case of a road traffic accident or emergency treatment for a stroke or heart attack, conventional medicine is unbeatable. The development of insulin has saved vast numbers of lives.  It is also effective in cases where bacterial infection is overwhelming the human system (although antibacterial resistance is becoming a real problem in conventional medicine).

This very aggressive approach brings with it, however, the risk of toxicity and side effects – not a good thing.  For instance, some of the drugs developed to increase, decrease or alter in some way the production, secretion and uptake of specific hormones and neurotransmitters in one physiological system can cause significant problems and imbalances elsewhere.  This is not always recognised or seen as important in conventional medicine.  However, if these drugs are not absolutely necessary, it may be useful to look at other ways of intervening which are less invasive and disruptive to normal functioning in the body.

Very often, conventional medicine has to employ several additional drugs to deal with the toxic or disruptive side effects of the initial prescription.  For instance, in the case of a leading (very effective) diuretic, doctors have to prescribe potassium as the drug strips the body of this mineral.  In herbal medicine Taraxacum officinale fol (Dandelion leaf) is prescribed as a diuretic which in trials has been found to be as effective as the diuretic mentioned above, but leaves the body with no lack of potassium.  This is due in part to the synergy of multiple constituents in the plant.

So, conventional medicine can be very effective in emergency situations, or at just clearing symptoms quickly, however, its focus is not on establishing or maintaining optimal functioning in the body.

Herbal medicine’s focus is on establishing healthy, energised, smooth functioning of the mind-body.  Although the academic degree in Herbal Medicine comprises largely medical training in the conventional sense, ranging from understanding of pathophysiology through differential diagnosis to prescribing, the herbalist’s premise is that a person’s daily functioning is of utmost importance.  This applies to cardiac and respiratory health, the immune, hormonal and nervous systems, digestion and elimination, as well as reproductive health.  Wellness and thriving depend on the successful collaboration and harmonisation of all the body’s systems, and this underpins how we treat disease, repair injury, calm the mind or reestablish hormonal balance.

Often in conventional medicine a condition may be seen as ‘only functional’, where a pathology (disease or need for repair) cannot be found.  Examples of such conditions are fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, some anxiety conditions, and many more.  Herbal medicine takes these conditions seriously as they reflect a problem with healthy functioning.

So, herbal medicine focuses on treating disease or imbalance in order to restore healthy functioning and vitality.  It is sometimes slower in its effects (but not always!), and qualified medical herbalists have extensive training in selecting plant drugs to avoid interaction with conventional drugs, or adverse interactions with each other.  The synergy of several consituents makes herbal medicine much more tolerable than many conventional drugs, as well as more effective in the long run.

If you would like to see whether herbal medicine can help you, the section on ‘How Herbs Help’ gives examples of where herbal medicine is particularly effective.  Please do get in touch if you would like to talk to Anne about how herbal medicine might help you.

Is herbal medicine safe?

Yes it is, in the hands of qualified medical herbalists whose training is in conventional medical science and herbal pharmacy – our dispensary is made up of very potent medicines which can have significant effects on the human system.  Otherwise we wouldn’t be using them.

Some herbs, including many of our local herbs, have gentle but powerful effects over time, and can be used safely by anyone with some initial training and a modicum of common sense.  Please get in touch if you would like more information on how you can help yourself, even by gathering the plants yourself.  Very often our patients use prescribed tinctures and teas alongside herbs from their own gardens!