Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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What is Herbalism?

Herbalism is the practice of using plants or plant extracts for medicinal purposes, drawing on traditional knowledge and contemporary research to promote health and help manage various symptoms.[1] 

In modern healthcare, herbalism is increasingly recognized as a complementary, alternative approach to conventional medicine, offering natural remedies that may support overall well-being and address specific health concerns.[2]

The practice of herbalism refers to folk and traditional medicinal practices based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as phytotherapy.


The use of herbs to help manage ailments is almost universal among nonindustrialized societies. Several traditions started to dominate the practice of herbal medicine in the West at the end of the 20th century, including:

  • Western practices based on Greek and Roman sources
  • Ayurveda from India
  • Chinese herbal medicine

Plant compounds are important for making many medicines today, either using their original molecules or derivatives of them. Examples include opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine.

The Essence of Herbalism

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Herbalism is rooted in a holistic approach to health, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the body, mind, and environment. 

Embracing the notion that plants possess inherent healing properties, herbalism supports the body's innate ability to heal itself through gentle and natural remedies. Additionally, herbalism values individualized care, recognizing that each person's health needs are unique and may require personalized herbal treatments tailored to their specific constitution and circumstances.

Herbalism vs. Conventional Medicine

In contrast to conventional medicine, which often focuses on symptom management and disease treatment using pharmaceutical interventions, herbalism emphasizes prevention and health promotion through lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, and botanical medicines.

Herbalism seeks to address the root causes of illness by restoring balance and harmony to the body, rather than merely suppressing symptoms. It prioritizes gentle, noninvasive therapies that minimize side effects and support the body's natural healing processes, aligning with naturopathic and integrative medicine approaches.

While conventional medicine relies heavily on scientific evidence and standardized treatment protocols, herbalism draws from traditional knowledge, empirical observations, and ethnobotanical practices passed down through generations. However, contemporary herbalism also integrates modern research and evidence-based practices to validate the efficacy and safety of herbal remedies, striving to bridge the gap between traditional wisdom and scientific validation.

Overall, herbalism embodies a holistic and integrative approach to health and healing, emphasizing the importance of balance, harmony, and individualized care in promoting well-being and vitality.

Herbalism Through the Ages

Herbalism's rich historical journey spans millennia and cultures. From ancient civilizations to modern times, the use of herbs for medicinal and therapeutic purposes has been integral to human existence. Below, we explore the key figures, pivotal moments, and transformative eras in the history of herbalism.

Ancient Origins

Herbalism finds its roots in the earliest human societies, where plants were not only a source of sustenance but also held profound medicinal properties. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India cultivated a deep understanding of herbal remedies, documented in texts such as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus and the Ayurvedic Brhattrayi.

Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates emphasized the healing power of nature and advocated for the use of herbs in medical treatments. 

His teachings laid the foundation for herbal medicine in the Western world. The works of Greek physicians such as Dioscorides became important texts in the field, cataloging hundreds of medicinal plants.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, herbalism thrived, with monasteries serving as centers of herbal knowledge and cultivation. Benedictine monks, in particular, played a crucial role in preserving and advancing herbal medicine practices. 

Renaissance and Enlightenment

The Renaissance witnessed a resurgence of interest in herbalism, fueled by the revival of classical learning. Herbal gardens proliferated across Europe, and botanical illustrations flourished. Figures like Nicholas Culpeper, an English botanist and herbalist, democratized herbal knowledge by publishing works in vernacular languages accessible to common people.

Modern Era

The advent of modern medicine and scientific advancements challenged traditional herbal practices, yet interest in herbalism endured. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the isolation and synthesis of active compounds from plants, leading to the development of modern pharmacology.

However, herbalism experienced a revival in the late 20th century, driven by a renewed interest in natural remedies and holistic healing approaches.

Pop Culture

Herbalism even plays a role in popular video games. For example, herblore is a skill in the massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), RuneScape. The game features a player who combines various game-based herbs to create potions. Additionally, in World of Warcraft, another MMORPG, herbalism allows the player to collect plants for use as reagents for the "Alchemy" skill.

Contemporary Perspectives

Today, herbalism occupies a unique space in the realm of healthcare, integrating traditional wisdom with scientific research. Herbalists, botanists, and naturopathic practitioners continue to explore plants' therapeutic potential, guided by historical precedent and modern evidence-based practices.

Biological Background

All plants produce chemical compounds as part of their normal metabolic activities. These can be split into two categories:

  1. Primary metabolites, such as sugars and fats, which affect the pant's growth and development
  2. Secondary metabolites, which protect plants from environmental threats such as insects or bacteria

Secondary metabolites can have therapeutic effects in humans and can be refined to produce drugs. Examples of these include inulin from the roots of dahlias, quinine from the cinchona, morphine, and codeine from the poppy, and digoxin from the foxglove.

As of 2004, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine started to fund clinical trials into the effectiveness of herbal medicine.[1]

Surveys have been conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as well as other organizations to study the use of herbal remedies. Examples of findings include the following:

  • Artichokes and several other plants have been associated with reduced total serum cholesterol levels in preliminary studies.[3]
  • Black cohosh and other plants that contain phytoestrogen plant molecules with estrogen-like activity have been found to have some benefits for the treatment of symptoms resulting from menopause.[4]
  • Echinacea extracts have been shown to limit the length of colds in some clinical trials, although some studies found it to have no effect.[5]
  • Garlic has been found to lower total cholesterol levels, mildly reduce blood pressure, reduce platelet aggregation, and have antibacterial properties.[6]
  • St John's Wort has been found to be more effective than a placebo for the treatment of mild to moderate depression in some clinical trials.[7]
  • Tumeric has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and potential anticancer effects.
  • Ginger may reduce nausea, motion sickness, and postoperative vomiting.
  • Ginkgo could improve cognitive functioning and alleviate symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Peppermint oil may relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion. 

The above herbs represent a selection of popular botanical remedies, with both traditional claims and evidence-based benefits, illustrating the intersection between traditional knowledge and modern scientific research in herbal medicine.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD says, "Some herbs have been more researched than others. For example, there are almost 7,000 research papers, including over 4,000 clinical trials, on turmeric published in scientific journals to date."


A common misconception about herbalism and the use of "natural" products in general, is that "natural" equals safe. Nature, however, is not necessarily benign; many plants have chemical defense mechanisms against predators that can have adverse effects on humans. Examples are hemlock and nightshade, which can be life-threatening to humans. Herbs can also have undesirable side effects, exacerbated by a lack of control over dosage and purity.

Name Confusion

Varieties of herbs are sometimes differentiated only by the suffix in the Latin names, and this name confusion can cause problems. For example, in a Belgian TCM remedy for weight loss, one herb was swapped for another with a similar name, and the incorrect herb caused kidney damage. One variety of the herb caused elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate, while the other variety helped with weight loss. 

International Standards

The legal status of an herbal ingredient may vary from one country to another. Some herbal products have been tested and demonstrated levels of heavy metals that would be considered unsafe in the United States.

Medical Interactions

Those wishing to use herbal remedies should first consult with a physician, as some herbs can cause adverse drug interactions when used in combination with prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. For example, dangerously low blood pressure may result from combining an herbal remedy that lowers blood pressure with prescription medicine that does the same thing. 

Most physicians have no training in herbal medicine, so they may not be the best sources of information on herbs. Also, there is little known about the interactions of herbal remedies with pharmaceuticals, since contrary to pharmaceutical medicine, there is no system in place to report and publish any (adverse) interactions. Even herbalists may not be aware of adverse interactions.

Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD explains, "It is true that medical doctors do not receive training in herbalism and that herbalists lack knowledge of prescription drugs. Fortunately, there are doctors with dual training in both conventional and herbal medicine who understand potential drug-herb interactions, provide consultations, and prescribe accordingly."

To put the safety issue in perspective, an editorial in the British Medical Journal noted, "Even though herbal medicines are not devoid of risk, they could still be safer than synthetic drugs. Between 1968 and 1997, the World Health Organization's monitoring center collected 8,985 reports of adverse events associated with herbal medicines from 55 countries. Although this number may seem impressively high, it amounts to only a tiny fraction of adverse events associated with conventional drugs held in the same database." (BMJ, October 18, 2003; 327:881-882).

A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported the following: "The overall incidence of serious adverse drug reactions (ADRs) was 6.7% (95% confidence interval [CI], 5.2%-8.2%) and of fatal ADRs was 0.32% (95% CI, 0.23%-0.41%) of hospitalized patients. We estimated that in 1994 overall 2,216,000 (1,721,000-2,711,000) hospitalized patients had serious ADRs and 106,000 (76,000-137,000) had fatal ADRs, making these reactions between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death." (JAMA. 1998;279:1200-1205)

Finally, research posted by Ron Law shows a United States death rate of 0.0001% from dietary supplements versus 2.4% from "preventable medical misadventures" and 5.18% from properly prescribed and used drugs. This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License

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  1. Mills, S., & Bone, K. (2013). The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. Churchill Livingstone.
  2. Bone, K., & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine (2nd ed.). Churchill Livingstone.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.