Does Herbal Medicine Work?

If you have ever eaten too hot a curry, you will have experienced the effect of overdosing on hot spices, such as chilli (Capsicum annuum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). This does not mean that these spices, which stimulate digestion, prevent food borne infection and open up the circulation around the body, are bad for you! Their usefulness in supporting health depends on taking a tolerable amount rather than too much. Such herbs, of course, are not suitable for everybody, but the skill of the herbalist – whether Ayurvedic, Chinese or western – lies in selecting the right combination of herbs, at an appropriate daily dosage, for the specific needs of the individual patient, whatever their symptoms.

Turning from experience and traditional use to scientific research, a vast body of scientific data now underpins the use of many well-known medicinal plants. Key herbs such as Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)1 and Ginseng (Panax ginseng)2, have been extensively researched, in terms of chemical constituents and in clinical trials, with safety and efficacy confirmed. Even in poorly researched herbs, like Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) there is a strong body of evidence confirming safety and its value as a sedative is not in doubt.

It has been argued that traditional herbal medicine is one long-standing clinical trial – plant medicines that do not work or have toxicity being dropped across generations, as safer and more effective plants are found. There is a lot going for this view, and it is one reason why herbal medicine has such a strong safety record. However, traditional use is not a guarantee of safety, and scientific research remains the final arbiter of safety and efficacy.

  1. Hashiguchi M et al. Meta-analysis of the efficacy and safety of Ginkgo biloba extract for the treatment of dementia. J Pharm Healthcare Sci. 2015 Dec;1(1):1-12.
  2. Lee NH et al. Safety and tolerability of Panax ginseng root extract: a randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial in healthy Korean volunteers. J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Nov 1;18(11):1061-9.