Herbal medicine — also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine — refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside of conventional medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine in the treating and preventing disease.
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, among others. Herbal supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider. Be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any herbs. Some common herbs and their uses are discussed below.
- 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 intermittent claudication (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. By the same token, this means 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.
- 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. But the herb 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. Some studies bear this out, although not all have found valerian to be effective. 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. 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.