Herbalism (also herbal medicine) is the study of botany and use of plants intended for medicinal purposes. Plants have been the basis for medical treatments through much of human history, and such traditional medicine is still widely practiced today.[1] Modern medicine makes use of many plant-derived compounds as the basis for evidence-based pharmaceutical drugs. Although herbalism may apply modern standards of effectiveness testing to herbs and medicines derived from natural sources, few high-quality clinical trials and standards for purity or dosage exist.[2] The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.

Herbal medicine may also refer to phytomedicine, phytotherapy,[3] or paraherbalism,[4] which are alternative and pseudoscientific practices of using unrefined plant or animal extracts as supposed medicines or health-promoting agents.[1][2][4][5] Phytotherapy differs from plant-derived medicines in standard pharmacology because it does not isolate or standardize biologically active compounds, but rather relies on the false belief that preserving various substances from a given source with less processing is safer or more effective — for which there is no evidence.[4] Herbal dietary supplements most often fall under the phytotherapy category.[5]


Archaeological evidence indicates that the use of medicinal plants dates back to the Paleolithic age, approximately 60,000 years ago. Written evidence of herbal remedies dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who compiled lists of plants. Some ancient cultures wrote about plants and their medical uses in books called herbals. In ancient Egypt, herbs are mentioned in Egyptian medical papyri, depicted in tomb illustrations, or on rare occasions found in medical jars containing trace amounts of herbs.[6] Among the oldest, lengthiest, and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, the Ebers Papyrus dates from about 1550 BC, and covers more than 700 compounds, mainly of plant origin.[7] The earliest known Greek herbals came from Theophrastus of Eresos who, in the 4th century BC, wrote in Greek Historia Plantarum, from Diocles of Carystus who wrote during the 3rd century BC, and from Krateuas who wrote in the 1st century BC. Only a few fragments of these works have survived intact, but from what remains, scholars noted overlap with the Egyptian herbals.[8] Seeds likely used for herbalism were found in archaeological sites of Bronze Age China dating from the Shang Dynasty[9] (c. 1600–1046 BC). Over a hundred of the 224 compounds mentioned in the Huangdi Neijing, an early Chinese medical text, are herbs.[10] Herbs also commonly featured in the traditional medicine of ancient India, where the principal treatment for diseases was diet.[11] De Materia Medica, originally written in Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD) of Anazarbus, Cilicia, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, is one example of herbal writing which was used for 1500 years until the 1600s.[12]

Modern herbal medicine

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the population of some Asian and African countries presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care.[13] Pharmaceuticals are prohibitively expensive for most of the world's population, half of whom lived on less than $2 U.S. per day in 2002.[14] In comparison, herbal medicines can be grown from seed or gathered from nature for little or no cost.

Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 25% of modern drugs used in the United States have been derived from plants.[13] At least 7,000 medical compounds in the modern pharmacopoeia are derived from plants.[15] Among the 120 active compounds currently isolated from the higher plants and widely used in modern medicine today, 80% show a positive correlation between their modern therapeutic use and the traditional use of the plants from which they are derived.[16]

Clinical tests

In a 2010 global survey of the most common 1000 plant-derived compounds, 156 had clinical trials published.[17] Preclinical studies (cell culture and animal studies) were reported for about one-half of the plant products, while 120 (12%) of the plants evaluated – although available in the Western market – had no rigorous studies of their properties, and five were toxic or allergenic, a finding that led the authors to conclude "their use ought to be discouraged or forbidden."[17] Nine plants evaluated in human clinical research included Althaea officinalis (marshmallow), Calendula officinalis (marigold), Centella asiatica (centella), Echinacea purpurea (echinacea), Passiflora incarnata (passionflower), Punica granatum (pomegranate), Vaccinium macrocarpon (cranberry), Vaccinium myrtillus (bilberry), and Valeriana officinalis (valerian), although generally there were inconsistent, often negative results, and the studies were of low quality.[17]

In 2015, the Australian Government's Department of Health published the results of a review of alternative therapies that sought to determine if any were suitable for being covered by health insurance; Herbalism was one of 17 topics evaluated for which no clear evidence of effectiveness was found.[18] Establishing guidelines to assess safety and efficacy of herbal products, the European Medicines Agency provides criteria for evaluating and grading the quality of clinical research in preparing monographs about herbal products.[19] In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health funds clinical trials on herbal compounds, provides fact sheets evaluating the safety, potential effectiveness and side effects of many plant sources,[20] and maintains a registry of clinical research conducted on herbal products.[21]

According to Cancer Research UK as of 2015, "there is currently no strong evidence from studies in people that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure cancer".[3]

Prevalence of use

The use of herbal remedies is more prevalent in patients with chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and end-stage renal disease.[22][23][24] Multiple factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, education and social class are also shown to have association with prevalence of herbal remedies use.[25]

A survey released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health focused on who used complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), what was used, and why it was used. The survey was limited to adults, aged 18 years and over during 2002, living in the United States. According to this survey, herbal therapy, or use of natural products other than vitamins and minerals, was the most commonly used CAM therapy (18.9%) when all use of prayer was excluded.[26][27]

Herbal remedies are very common in Europe. In Germany, herbal medications are dispensed by apothecaries (e.g., Apotheke). Prescription drugs are sold alongside essential oils, herbal extracts, or herbal teas. Herbal remedies are seen by some as a treatment to be preferred to pure medical compounds that have been industrially produced.[28]

In India the herbal remedy is so popular that the government of India has created a separate department—AYUSH—under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. The National Medicinal Plants Board was also established in 2000 by the Indian government in order to deal with the herbal medical system.[29]

Herbal preparations

There are many forms in which herbs can be administered, the most common of which is in the form of a liquid that is drunk by the patient—either an herbal tea or a (possibly diluted) plant extract.[30]

Several methods of standardization may be determining the amount of herbs used. One is the ratio of raw materials to solvent. However different specimens of even the same plant species may vary in chemical content. For this reason, thin layer chromatography is sometimes used by growers to assess the content of their products before use. Another method is standardization on a signal chemical.[31]

Eucalyptus olida distillation1
Leaves of Eucalyptus olida being packed into a steam distillation unit to gather its essential oil.

Herbal teas, or tisanes, are the resultant liquid of extracting herbs into water, though they are made in a few different ways. Infusions are hot water extracts of herbs, such as chamomile or mint, through steeping. Decoctions are the long-term boiled extracts, usually of harder substances like roots or bark. Maceration is the cold infusion of plants with high mucilage-content, such as sage or thyme. To make macerates, plants are chopped and added to cold water. They are then left to stand for 7 to 12 hours (depending on herb used). For most macerates, 10 hours is used.[32]

Tinctures are alcoholic extracts of herbs, which are generally stronger than herbal teas.[33] Tinctures are usually obtained by combining 100% pure ethanol (or a mixture of 100% ethanol with water) with the herb. A completed tincture has an ethanol percentage of at least 25% (sometimes up to 90%).[32] Herbal wine and elixirs are alcoholic extract of herbs, usually with an ethanol percentage of 12–38%.[32] Extracts include liquid extracts, dry extracts, and nebulisates. Liquid extracts are liquids with a lower ethanol percentage than tinctures. They are usually made by vacuum distilling tinctures. Dry extracts are extracts of plant material that are evaporated into a dry mass. They can then be further refined to a capsule or tablet.[32]

The exact composition of an herbal product is influenced by the method of extraction. A tea will be rich in polar components because water is a polar solvent. Oil on the other hand is a non-polar solvent and it will absorb non-polar compounds. Alcohol lies somewhere in between.[30]

Many herbs are applied topically to the skin in a variety of forms. Essential oil extracts can be applied to the skin, usually diluted in a carrier oil. Many essential oils can burn the skin or are simply too high dose used straight; diluting them in olive oil or another food grade oil such as almond oil can allow these to be used safely as a topical. Salves, oils, balms, creams and lotions are other forms of topical delivery mechanisms. Most topical applications are oil extractions of herbs. Taking a food grade oil and soaking herbs in it for anywhere from weeks to months allows certain phytochemicals to be extracted into the oil. This oil can then be made into salves, creams, lotions, or simply used as an oil for topical application. Many massage oils, antibacterial salves, and wound healing compounds are made this way.[34]

Inhalation, as in aromatherapy, can be used as a treatment.[35][36][37]


Datura stramonium - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-051
Datura stramonium has been used in Ayurveda for various treatments, but contains alkaloids, such as atropine and scopolamine, which may cause severe toxicity.[38]

A number of herbs are thought to be likely to cause adverse effects.[39] Furthermore, "adulteration, inappropriate formulation, or lack of understanding of plant and drug interactions have led to adverse reactions that are sometimes life threatening or lethal."[40] Proper double-blind clinical trials are needed to determine the safety and efficacy of each plant before they can be recommended for medical use.[41] Although many consumers believe that herbal medicines are safe because they are "natural", herbal medicines and synthetic drugs may interact, causing toxicity to the patient. Herbal remedies can also be dangerously contaminated, and herbal medicines without established efficacy, may unknowingly be used to replace medicines that do have corroborated efficacy.[42]

Standardization of purity and dosage is not mandated in the United States, but even products made to the same specification may differ as a result of biochemical variations within a species of plant.[43] Plants have chemical defense mechanisms against predators that can have adverse or lethal effects on humans. Examples of highly toxic herbs include poison hemlock and nightshade.[44] They are not marketed to the public as herbs, because the risks are well known, partly due to a long and colorful history in Europe, associated with "sorcery", "magic" and intrigue.[45] Although not frequent, adverse reactions have been reported for herbs in widespread use.[46] On occasion serious untoward outcomes have been linked to herb consumption. A case of major potassium depletion has been attributed to chronic licorice ingestion.,[47] and consequently professional herbalists avoid the use of licorice where they recognize that this may be a risk. Black cohosh has been implicated in a case of liver failure.[48] Few studies are available on the safety of herbs for pregnant women,[49] and one study found that use of complementary and alternative medicines are associated with a 30% lower ongoing pregnancy and live birth rate during fertility treatment.[50] Examples of herbal treatments with likely cause-effect relationships with adverse events include aconite, which is often a legally restricted herb, ayurvedic remedies, broom, chaparral, Chinese herb mixtures, comfrey, herbs containing certain flavonoids, germander, guar gum, liquorice root, and pennyroyal.[51] Examples of herbs where a high degree of confidence of a risk long term adverse effects can be asserted include ginseng, which is unpopular among herbalists for this reason, the endangered herb goldenseal, milk thistle, senna, against which herbalists generally advise and rarely use, aloe vera juice, buckthorn bark and berry, cascara sagrada bark, saw palmetto, valerian, kava, which is banned in the European Union, St. John's wort, Khat, Betel nut, the restricted herb Ephedra, and Guarana.[40]

There is also concern with respect to the numerous well-established interactions of herbs and drugs.[40] In consultation with a physician, usage of herbal remedies should be clarified, as some herbal remedies have the potential to cause adverse drug interactions when used in combination with various prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, just as a patient should inform a herbalist of their consumption of orthodox prescription and other medication.

For example, dangerously low blood pressure may result from the combination of an herbal remedy that lowers blood pressure together with prescription medicine that has the same effect. Some herbs may amplify the effects of anticoagulants.[52] Certain herbs as well as common fruit interfere with cytochrome P450, an enzyme critical to much drug metabolism.[53]

In a 2018 study, FDA identified active pharmaceutical additives in over 700 of analyzed dietary supplements sold as "herbal", "natural" or "traditional".[54] The undisclosed additives included "unapproved antidepressants and designer steroids", as well as prescription drugs, such as sildenafil or sibutramine.

Labeling accuracy

A 2013 study found that one-third of herbal supplements sampled contained no trace of the herb listed on the label.[43] The study found products adulterated with contaminants or fillers not listed on the label, including potential allergens such as soy, wheat, or black walnut. One bottle labeled as St. John's Wort was found to actually contain Alexandrian senna, a laxative.[43][55]

Researchers at the University of Adelaide found in 2014 that almost 20 per cent of herbal remedies surveyed were not registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, despite this being a condition for their sale.[56] They also found that nearly 60 per cent of products surveyed had ingredients that did not match what was on the label. Out of 121 products, only 15 had ingredients that matched their TGA listing and packaging.[56]

In 2015, the New York Attorney General issued cease and desist letters to four major U.S. retailers (GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart) who were accused of selling herbal supplements that were mislabeled and potentially dangerous.[57][58] Twenty-four products were tested by DNA barcoding as part of the investigation, with all but five containing DNA that did not match the product labels.

Practitioners of herbalism

Picking of heads of Arnica montana
A herbalist gathers the flower heads of Arnica montana.

Herbalists must learn many skills, including the wildcrafting or cultivation of herbs, diagnosis and treatment of conditions or dispensing herbal medication, and preparations of herbal medications. Education of herbalists varies considerably in different areas of the world. Lay herbalists and traditional indigenous medicine people generally rely upon apprenticeship and recognition from their communities in lieu of formal schooling.

In some countries, formalized training and minimum education standards exist, although these are not necessarily uniform within or between countries. In Australia, for example, the self-regulated status of the profession (as of 2009) resulted in variable standards of training, and numerous loosely-formed associations setting different educational standards.[59] One 2009 review concluded that regulation of herbalists in Australia was needed to reduce the risk of interaction of herbal medicines with prescription drugs, to implement clinical guidelines and prescription of herbal products, and to assure self-regulation for protection of public health and safety.[59] In the United Kingdom, the training of herbalists is done by state funded universities offering Bachelor of Science degrees in herbal medicine.[34]

Government regulations

The World Health Organization (WHO), the specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that is concerned with international public health, published Quality control methods for medicinal plant materials in 1998 in order to support WHO Member States in establishing quality standards and specifications for herbal materials, within the overall context of quality assurance and control of herbal medicines.[60]

In the European Union (EU), herbal medicines are regulated under the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products.[61]

In the United States, herbal remedies are regulated dietary supplements by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) policy for dietary supplements.[62] Manufacturers of products falling into this category are not required to prove the safety or efficacy of their product so long as they do not make 'medical' claims or imply uses other than as a 'dietary supplement', though the FDA may withdraw a product from sale should it prove harmful.[63][64]

Canadian regulations are described by the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate which requires an eight-digit Natural Product Number or Homeopathic Medicine Number on the label of licensed herbal medicines or dietary supplements.[65]

Some herbs, such as cannabis and coca, are outright banned in most countries though coca is legal in most of the South American countries where it is grown. The Cannabis plant is used as an herbal medicine, and as such is legal in some parts of the world. Since 2004, the sales of ephedra as a dietary supplement is prohibited in the United States by the FDA,[66] and subject to Schedule III restrictions in the United Kingdom.

Scientific criticism

Herbalism has been criticized as a potential "minefield" of unreliable product quality, safety hazards, and potential for misleading health advice.[1][5] Globally, there are no standards across various herbal products to authenticate their contents, safety or efficacy,[43] and there is generally an absence of high-quality scientific research on product composition or effectiveness for anti-disease activity.[5][67] Presumed claims of therapeutic benefit from herbal products, without rigorous evidence of efficacy and safety, receive skeptical views by scientists.[1]

Unethical practices by some herbalists and manufacturers, which may include false advertising about health benefits on product labels or literature,[5] and contamination or use of fillers during product preparation,[43][68] may erode consumer confidence about services and products.[69][70]

Phytotherapy and paraherbalism

Cinchona officinalis 001
An example of a herbal medicine resource: the bark of the cinchona tree contains quinine, which today is a widely prescribed treatment for malaria. The unpurified bark is still used by some who can not afford to purchase more expensive antimalarial drugs.

Paraherbalism or phytotherapy is the pseudoscientific use of extracts of plant or animal origin as supposed medicines or health-promoting agents.[1][5][4] Phytotherapy differs from plant-derived medicines in standard pharmacology because it does not isolate and standardize the compounds from a given plant believed to be biologically active. It relies on the false belief that preserving the complexity of substances from a given plant with less processing is safer and potentially more effective, for which there is no evidence either condition applies.[4]

Phytochemical researcher Varro Eugene Tyler described paraherbalism as "faulty or inferior herbalism based on pseudoscience", using scientific terminology but lacking scientific evidence for safety and efficacy. Tyler listed ten fallacies that distinguished herbalism from paraherbalism, including claims that there is a conspiracy to suppress safe and effective herbs, herbs can not cause harm, that whole herbs are more effective than molecules isolated from the plants, herbs are superior to drugs, the doctrine of signatures (the belief that the shape of the plant indicates its function) is valid, dilution of substances increases their potency (a doctrine of the pseudoscience of homeopathy), astrological alignments are significant, animal testing is not appropriate to indicate human effects, anecdotal evidence is an effective means of proving a substance works and herbs were created by God to cure disease. Tyler suggests that none of these beliefs have any basis in fact.[71][72]

Traditional systems

Xi'an traditionnal medecine market (18)
Ready to drink macerated medicinal liquor with goji berry, tokay gecko, and ginseng, for sale at a traditional medicine market in Xi'an, China.


Up to 80% of the population in Africa uses traditional medicine as primary health care.[73]


Native Americans medicinally used about 2,500 of the approximately 20,000 plant species that are native to North America.[74]


Some researchers trained in both Western and traditional Chinese medicine have attempted to deconstruct ancient medical texts in the light of modern science. One idea is that the yin-yang balance, at least with regard to herbs, corresponds to the pro-oxidant and anti-oxidant balance. This interpretation is supported by several investigations of the ORAC ratings of various yin and yang herbs.[75][76]


In India, Ayurvedic medicine has quite complex formulas with 30 or more ingredients, including a sizable number of ingredients that have undergone "alchemical processing", chosen to balance dosha.[77]

In Ladakh, Lahul-Spiti and Tibet, the Tibetan Medical System is prevalent, also called the 'Amichi Medical System'. Over 337 species of medicinal plants have been documented by C.P. Kala. Those are used by Amchis, the practitioners of this medical system.[78][79]

In Tamil Nadu, Tamils have their own medicinal system now popularly called Siddha medicine. The Siddha system is entirely in the Tamil language. It contains roughly 300,000 verses covering diverse aspects of medicine. This work includes herbal, mineral and metallic compositions used as medicine. Ayurveda is in Sanskrit, but Sanskrit was not generally used as a mother tongue and hence its medicines are mostly taken from Siddha and other local traditions.[80]


Different types of Indonesian jamu herbal medicines held in bottles.

In Indonesia, especially among the Javanese, the jamu traditional herbal medicine is an age old tradition preserved for centuries. Jamu is thought to have originated in the Mataram Kingdom era, some 1300 years ago.[81] The bas-reliefs on Borobudur depict the image of people grinding herbs with stone mortar and pestle, a drink seller, a physician and masseuse treating their clients.[82] All of these scenes might be interpreted as a traditional herbal medicine and health-related treatments in ancient Java. The Madhawapura inscription from Majapahit period mentioned a specific profession of herbs mixer and combiner (herbalist), called Acaraki.[82] The medicine book from Mataram dated from circa 1700 contains 3,000 entries of jamu herbal recipes, while Javanese classical literature Serat Centhini (1814) describes some jamu herbal concoction recipes.[82]

Though possibly influenced by Indian Ayurveda systems, Indonesia's vast archipelago holds numerous indigenous plants not to be found in India, including plants similar to those in Australia beyond the Wallace Line. Jamu practices may vary from region to region, and are often not written down, especially in remote areas of the country.[83] Although primarily herbal, some Jamu materials are acquired from animals, such as honey, royal jelly, milk and ayam kampung eggs.


Herbalists tend to use extracts from parts of plants, such as the roots or leaves,[84] believing that plants are subject to environmental pressures and therefore develop resistance to threats such as radiation, reactive oxygen species and microbial attack in order to survive, providing defensive phytochemicals of use in herbalism.[84][85]

Uses of herbal medicines by animals

Indigenous healers often claim to have learned by observing that sick animals change their food preferences to nibble at bitter herbs they would normally reject.[86] Field biologists have provided corroborating evidence based on observation of diverse species, such as chickens, sheep, butterflies, and chimpanzee. The habit of changing diet has been shown to be a physical means of purging intestinal parasites. Lowland gorillas take 90% of their diet from the fruits of Aframomum melegueta, a relative of the ginger plant, that is a potent antimicrobial and apparently keeps shigellosis and similar infections at bay.[87] Current research focuses on the possibility that this plant also protects gorillas from fibrosing cardiomyopathy, which has a devastating effect on captive animals.[88]

Sick animals tend to forage plants rich in secondary metabolites, such as tannins and alkaloids.[89] Because these phytochemicals often have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antihelminthic properties, a plausible case can be made for self-medication by animals in the wild.[87]

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Further reading


Adaptogens or adaptogenic substances are used in herbal medicine for the claimed stabilization of physiological processes and promotion of homeostasis. The European Medicines Agency stated in a 2008 reflection paper that the concept requires additional clinical and preclinical research, and is therefore not accepted into current terminology.The concept of adaptogens was originally created in 1947 to describe a substance that may increase resistance to stress. Adaptogenesis was later applied in the former Soviet Union to describe remedies thought to increase the resistance of organisms to biological stress. Another definition for an herb to be considered an adaptogen requires that it must be nontoxic, nonspecific, and thought to affect physiology of the organism.

Most of the studies conducted on adaptogens were performed in the Soviet Union, Korea, and China before the 1980s, and have been partially dismissed for various methodological flaws. The term is currently not accepted in pharmacological, physiological, or mainstream clinical practices in the European Union as it requires further studies and more data. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in 2013 to a Washington-based company for illegal advertising and false health claims concerning use of the word "adaptogen" for one of its products.


Albularyo (Tagalog pronunciation: [ärbuˈlɐɾjo̞]), also spelled as albularyo, is a Filipino term for a witch doctor, folk healer or medicine men.

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Research Station, Odakkali

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Research Station, Odakkali is a research Station under the Central Zone of Kerala Agricultural University at Odakkali in Ernakulam district of Kerala, India. This station was established in 1951 as Lemongrass Breeding Station by the Travancore-Cochin Government. Later in 1972 after the formation of Kerala Agricultural University the research station was brought under the control of KAU. The station was renamed as Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Research Station (AMPRS) in 1982.

In 1994, Ministry of Agriculture, of India upgraded the phytochemical laboratory of this station as one of the Regional Analytical Laboratories for medicinal and aromatic plants.

In 2008, some augmented facilities were inaugurated as a step in the research station’s bid to acquire the status of a centre of excellence in aromatic and medicinal plants in the country.


Chyawanprash (also spelled chyavanaprasha, chyavanaprash, chyavanaprasam, chamanprash and chyawanaprash) is a cooked mixture of sugar, honey, ghee, Indian Gooseberry (amla), jam, sesame oil, berries and various herbs and spices. It is prepared as per the instructions suggested in Ayurvedic texts. Chyawanprash is widely sold and consumed in India as a dietary supplement.


Decoction is a method of extraction by boiling herbal or plant material to dissolve the chemicals of the material, which may include stems, roots, bark and rhizomes. Decoction involves first mashing the plant material to allow for maximum dissolution, and then boiling in water to extract oils, volatile organic compounds and other various chemical substances. Decoction can be used to make herbal teas, leaf teas, coffees, tinctures and similar solutions. Decoctions and infusions may produce liquids with differing chemical properties as the temperature and/or preparation difference may result in more oil-soluble chemicals in decoctions versus infusions. The process can also be applied to meats and vegetables to prepare bouillon or stock,

though the term is typically only used to describe boiled plant extracts, usually for medicinal or scientific purposes.

Decoction is also the name for the resulting liquid. Although this method of extraction differs from infusion and percolation, the resultant liquids can sometimes be similar in their effects, or general appearance and taste.

Doctrine of signatures

The doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. A theological justification, as stated by botanists such as William Coles, was that God would have wanted to show men what plants would be useful for.

It is today considered to be pseudoscience, and has led to many deaths and severe illnesses. For instance birthwort, once used widely for pregnancies, is carcinogenic and very damaging to the kidneys, owing to its aristolochic acid content. As a defense against predation, many plants contain toxic chemicals the action of which is not immediately apparent, or easily tied to the plant rather than other factors.


Femarelle is a dietary supplement that is a mixture of DT56a (a tofu extract) and flaxseed powder, that may act as a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM). In 2008 an application was submitted to the European Food Safety Authority to market Femarelle with a health claim, namely that it can reduce the risk for osteoporosis and other bone disorders; the EFSA found that "the food/constituent for which the claim is made, i.e. Femarelle, has not been sufficiently characterised" and that " a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of Femarelle and increased BMD, increased bone formation, or decreased risk of osteoporosis or other bone disorders in post-menopausal women."Femarelle has been tested in small clinical trials. One studied its effect on the tissue lining the vagina, another on relief of hot flashes in menopause, and another on the risk of causing blood clots, which is a risk of hormone replacement therapy. While results were promising, the studies were too small and too short in duration from which to draw conclusions.


A herbal is a book containing the names and descriptions of plants, usually with information on their medicinal, tonic, culinary, toxic, hallucinatory, aromatic, or magical powers, and the legends associated with them. A herbal may also classify the plants it describes, may give recipes for herbal extracts, tinctures, or potions, and sometimes include mineral and animal medicaments in addition to those obtained from plants. Herbals were often illustrated to assist plant identification.Herbals were among the first literature produced in Ancient Egypt, China, India, and Europe as the medical wisdom of the day accumulated by herbalists, apothecaries and physicians. Herbals were also among the first books to be printed in both China and Europe. In Western Europe herbals flourished for two centuries following the introduction of moveable type (c. 1470–1670).In the late 17th century, the rise of modern chemistry, toxicology and pharmacology reduced the medicinal value of the classical herbal. As reference manuals for botanical study and plant identification herbals were supplanted by Floras – systematic accounts of the plants found growing in a particular region, with scientifically accurate botanical descriptions, classification, and illustrations. Herbals have seen a modest revival in the Western world since the last decades of the 20th century, as herbalism and related disciplines (such as homeopathy and aromatherapy) became popular forms of alternative medicine.

Herbal tonic

In herbal medicine, a herbal tonic is used to help restore, tone and invigorate systems in the body or to promote general health and well-being. An herbal tonic is a solution or other preparation made from a specially selected assortment of the kinds of plants known as herbs.

List of plants used in herbalism

This is a list of plants used or formerly used as herbal medicine.

The ability to synthesize a wide variety of chemical compounds that are used to perform important biological functions, and to defend against attack from predators such as insects, fungi and herbivorous mammals is called herbal medicine. Many of these phytochemicals have beneficial effects on long-term health when consumed by humans, and can be used to effectively treat human diseases. At least 12,000 such compounds have been isolated so far; a number estimated to be less than 10% of the total.These phytochemicals are divided into (1) primary metabolites such as sugars and fats, which are found in all plants; and (2) secondary metabolites – compounds which are found in a smaller range of plants, serving a more specific function. For example, some secondary metabolites are toxins used to deter predation and others are pheromones used to attract insects for pollination. It is these secondary metabolites and pigments that can have therapeutic actions in humans and which can be refined to produce drugs—examples are inulin from the roots of dahlias, quinine from the cinchona, morphine and codeine from the poppy, and digoxin from the foxglove.Chemical compounds in plants mediate their effects on the human body through processes identical to those already well understood for the chemical compounds in conventional drugs; thus herbal medicines do not differ greatly from conventional drugs in terms of how they work. This enables herbal medicines to be as effective as conventional medicines, but also gives them the same potential to cause harmful side effects.In Europe, apothecaries stocked herbal ingredients for their medicines. In the Latin names for plants created by Linnaeus, the word officinalis indicates that a plant was used in this way. For example, the marsh mallow has the classification Althaea officinalis, as it was traditionally used as an emollient to soothe ulcers. Ayurvedic medicine, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are other examples of medical practices that incorporate medical uses of plants. Pharmacognosy is the branch of modern medicine about medicines from plant sources. Plants included here are those that have been or are being used medicinally, in at least one such medicinal tradition.

Modern medicine now tends to use the active ingredients of plants rather than the whole plants. The phytochemicals may be synthesized, compounded or otherwise transformed to make pharmaceuticals. Examples of such derivatives include digoxin, from digitalis; capsaicine, from chili; and aspirin, which is chemically related to the salicylic acid found in white willow. The opium poppy continues to be a major industrial source of opiates, including morphine. Few traditional remedies, however, have translated into modern drugs, although there is continuing research into the efficacy and possible adaptation of traditional herbal treatments.


Menerba, also known as Menopause Formula 101 (MF-101), is a botanical drug candidate that acts as a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) which is being studied for its potential to relieve hot flashes associated with menopause. Menerba, an estrogen receptor beta (ERβ) agonist (ERBA), is part of a new class of receptor subtype-selective estrogens, which is selective in transcriptional regulation to one of the two known estrogen receptor (ER) subtypes. Menerba consists of 22 herbs that have been used historically in traditional Chinese medicine.Menerba binds to both ERα and ERβ and with equal affinity, but does not activate ERα and instead activates only ERβ-mediated gene transcription.

Nine Herbs Charm

The "Nine Herbs Charm" is an Old English charm recorded in the tenth-century CE Anglo-Saxon medical compilation known as Lacnunga, which survives on in the manuscript London, British Library, Harley 585. The charm is intended for the treatment of poisoning and infection by a preparation of nine herbs. The numbers nine and three, significant in Germanic paganism and later Germanic folklore, are mentioned frequently within the charm. The poem contains references to Christian and English Pagan elements, including a mention of the major Germanic god Woden.

According to R. K. Gordon, the poem is "clearly an old heathen thing which has been subjected to Christian censorship." Malcolm Laurence Cameron states that chanting the poem aloud results in a "marvellously incantatory effect".


Phytochemistry is the study of phytochemicals, which are chemicals derived from plants. Those studying phytochemistry strive to describe the structures of the large number of secondary metabolic compounds found in plants, the functions of these compounds in human and plant biology, and the biosynthesis of these compounds. Plants synthesize phytochemicals for many reasons, including to protect themselves against insect attacks and plant diseases. Phytochemicals in food plants are often active in human biology, and in many cases have health benefits. The compounds found in plants are of many kinds, but most are in four major biochemical classes, the alkaloids, glycosides, polyphenols, and terpenes.

Phytochemistry can be considered sub-fields of botany or chemistry. Activities can be led in botanical gardens or in the wild with the aid of ethnobotany. The applications of the discipline can be for pharmacognosy, or the discovery of new drugs, or as an aid for plant physiology studies.


Rimostil (developmental code name P-081) is a dietary supplement and extract of isoflavones from red clover which was under development by Kazia Therapeutics (formerly Novogen) for the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease and for the treatment of menopausal symptoms and hyperlipidemia but was never approved for medical use. It is enriched with isoflavone phytoestrogens such as formononetin, biochanin A, daidzein, and genistein, and is proposed to act as a selective estrogen receptor modulator, with both estrogenic and antiestrogenic effects in different tissues. The extract reached phase II clinical trials for cardiovascular disorders, hyperlipidemia, and postmenopausal osteoporosis prior to the discontinuation of its development in 2007.

Strychnos nux-vomica

Strychnos nux-vomica, the strychnine tree, also known as nux vomica, poison nut, semen strychnos, and quaker buttons, is a deciduous tree native to India and to southeast Asia. It is a medium-sized tree in the family Loganiaceae that grows in open habitats. Its leaves are ovate and 2–3.5 inches (5.1–8.9 cm) in size.It is a major source of the highly poisonous, intensely bitter alkaloids strychnine and brucine derived from the seeds inside the tree's round, green to orange fruit. The seeds contain approximately 1.5% strychnine, and the dried blossoms contain 1.0%. However, the tree's bark also contains brucine and other poisonous compounds.

Strychnos is promoted within alternative medicine as a treatment for many conditions, but the claims are not supported by medical evidence.The use of strychnine is highly regulated in many countries, and it is mostly used in baits to kill feral mammals, including wild dogs, foxes, and rodents. Most accidental poisoning is caused by breathing in the powder or by absorption through the skin.

Syrup of ipecac

Syrup of ipecac (), commonly referred to as ipecac, is a drug that was once widely used as an expectorant (in low doses) and a rapid-acting emetic (in higher doses). It is obtained from the dried rhizome and roots of Carapichea ipecacuanha from which it derives its name.

In particular, the rapidly induced forceful vomiting produced by ipecac was considered for many years to be an important front-line treatment for orally ingested poisons. However, subsequent studies (including a comprehensive 2005 meta-study) revealed the stomach purging produced by ipecac to be far less effective at lowering total body poison concentrations than the absorption effect of oral activated charcoal (which is effective through the entire gastrointestinal tract and is often coupled with whole bowel irrigation). Ipecac also presents a small risk of overdose (being a mild poison itself) and a major risk of esophagitis and aspiration pneumonia if used to purge corrosive poisons. Having long been replaced (even in the emetic role) by more effective medications, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists now advises that "Ipecac syrup is no longer recommended for routine management of outpatient ingestions of medications or other chemicals."

Tui na

Tui na ([tʰwéi.nǎ]; Chinese: 推拿) is a form of Chinese manipulative therapy often used in conjunction with acupuncture, moxibustion, fire cupping, Chinese herbalism, t'ai chi, and qigong.

Vaginal steaming

Vaginal steaming, sometimes shortened to V-steaming, and also known as yoni steaming, is an alternative health treatment whereby a woman squats or sits over steaming water containing herbs such as mugwort, rosemary, wormwood, and basil. It has been practiced in Africa (Mozambique, South Africa), Asia (Indonesia, Thailand), and Central America (among the Q'eqchi' people).

Vaginal steaming is described in spas as an ancient Korean treatment for reproductive organ ailments and is claimed to have other benefits. No empirical evidence supports any of these claims. It has become a fad for women in the Western world. In a paper for Culture, Health & Sexuality, Vandenburg and Braun argue that the rhetoric of vaginal steaming mirrors sexist Western discourse about the supposed inherent dirtiness of the female body, and that its claims of improved fertility and sexual pleasure continue the view that the female body exists for male sexual pleasure and childbearing.


The Verbenaceae () are a family — the verbena family or vervain family — of mainly tropical flowering plants. It contains trees, shrubs, and herbs notable for heads, spikes, or clusters of small flowers, many of which have an aromatic smell.Recent phylogenetic studies have shown that numerous genera traditionally classified in Verbenaceae belong instead in Lamiaceae. The new, narrowly circumscribed, Verbenaceae family includes some 35 genera and 1,200 species. The mangrove genus Avicennia, sometimes placed in the Verbenaceae or in its own family, Avicenniaceae, has been placed in the Acanthaceae.Economically important Verbenaceae include:

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), grown for aroma or flavoring

Verbenas or vervains (Verbena), some used in herbalism, others grown in gardens

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