What Is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is the use of plants and plant extracts to support and maintain good health, and to treat and heal illness when it arises. Throughout history, right up until the present day, the plant world has provided the overwhelming majority of medicines used by human beings for their healthcare. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 75% of the world’s population still rely on plants as the main source of their medicines. Even in Western countries, with advanced healthcare systems, approximately 20% of medicines are plant-based.

We tend to divide plants into those that provide nourishment - food, and those that are therapeutically active – medicine, but the plant world does not fit into simple categories. Oats, beetroot and lemon (which we think of as foods), and herbs, such as garlic, ginger and thyme, all have medicinal activity and are valued home remedies for common health problems, from nervous exhaustion to coughs, colds and sore throats. At the same time, they are used by herbalists to treat more serious illness, e.g. asthma, high blood pressure, chronic fungal infections, usually in combination with more powerfully active plant extracts such as barberry (Berberis vulgaris), elecampane (Inula helenium) and lobelia (Lobellia inflata).

Thinking in terms of a spectrum is helpful, with food plants like broccoli at one end and plants that are straightforwardly poisonous, such as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) at the other. Most medicinal herbs lie in between, with the vast majority closer to the food end.