Herbal Medicine or Phytotherapy is the study of the use of extracts of natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents. Herbal medicines differ from plant-derived medicines in standard pharmacology. Where standard pharmacology isolates an active compound from a given plant, phytotherapy aims to preserve the complexity of substances from a given plant with relatively less processing.
Herbal Medicine is distinct from homeopathy and anthroposophic medicine, and avoids mixing plant and synthetic bio-active substances. Traditional phytotherapy is a synonym for herbalism and regarded as alternative medicine by much of Western medicine. Although the medicinal and biological effects of many plant constituents such as alkaloids (morphine, atropine etc.) have been proven through clinical studies, there is debate about the efficacy and the place of phytotherapy in medical therapies.
Phytotherapy is another term for “herbal medicine”. An herb is a plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, or therapeutic properties.
Herbal medicines are one type of dietary supplement. They are sold as tablets, capsules, powders, teas, extracts, and fresh or dried plants. People use herbal medicines to try to maintain or improve their health.
Many people believe that products labeled “natural” are always safe and good for them. This is not necessarily true. Herbal medicines do not have to go through the testing that drugs do. Some herbs, such as comfrey and ephedra, can cause serious harm. Some herbs can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
If you are thinking about using an herbal medicine, first get information on it from reliable sources, such as an Integrative Practitioner from our Directory. Make sure to tell your health care provider about any herbal medicines you are taking.
Herbs at a Glance is a series of brief fact sheets that provides basic information about specific herbs or botanicals—common names, what the science says, potential side effects and cautions, and resources for more information.
In 2002, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health began funding clinical trials into the effectiveness of herbal medicine. In a 2010 survey of 1000 plants, 356 had clinical trials published evaluating their “pharmacological activities and therapeutic applications” while 12% of the plants, although available in the Western market, had “no substantial studies” of their properties.
Even widely used remedies may not have undergone substantial clinical testing. In a review on herbal medicine in Malaria treatment, the authors found that “…better evidence from randomized clinical trials is needed before herbal remedies can be recommended on a large scale. As such trials are expensive and time consuming, it is important to prioritize remedies for clinical investigation.”
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