Herbal Medicine 101: How You Can Harness the Power of Herbs – Healthline
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When you pop into a health food store, you’ll likely see plenty of herbal products being displayed on shelves.
Medicinal herbs are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been used for centuries. Recently, they’ve become more widely accessible to the average person who may or may not be familiar with their traditional uses.
Herbs are added into foods, teas, and beauty products. There are herbal ghees, sparkling herbal drinks, and even herbal skin creams.
They’re usually beautifully packaged and contain enticing ingredients, like ashwagandha, lion’s mane mushroom, or Rhodiola rosea.
Do these herbal concoctions have the healing powers they claim to? And how do you know which ones are right for you?
This guide dives into the details so you can consume herbs safely, respectfully, and effectively.
First, determine why you want to incorporate herbs into your wellness plan. Is it for general well-being, or do you have a specific issue you want to address?
Some herbs are considered safe and mild enough for general wellness. They can often be found in herbal products and in supplement form.
These herbs may be used to help with:
“When people learn to use gentle herbs for wellness and balance, as is common in many traditional societies and increasingly vernacular in the United States, it’s relatively easy to accumulate a toolkit to support the entire body, mind, and spirit,” says Benjamin Zappin, LAc, herbalist, and co-founder of Five Flavor Herbs in Oakland, California.
Herbs that are generally considered safe for overall wellness in small amounts and in mild preparations, like teas, include:
However, it’s important to consult a professional if you’re looking to treat a specific condition.
That way you’ll get a proper dosage that’s safe, effective, and suited to your individual needs. This may involve an herbal formula that has specific ratios of a mixture of herbs to optimize their effectiveness.
According to Kerry Hughes, a staff ethnobotanist at Elements Drinks, the effect of a single herb can change based on the amount used.
“The herbs used for both overall wellness and specific conditions may be the same, but it might be the frequency, amount, or type of extract that might differ. It can get confusing, and this is why it’s important to consult a health practitioner if you’re dealing with a specific condition,” Hughes says.
Herbs are prescribed for the whole person, not just a single condition or symptom.
That’s why it’s important to consult a qualified, licensed, and experienced professional. This is especially true if you’re taking any pharmaceutical drugs, as your practitioner will be able to tell you about possible interactions.
Getting your herbs from a qualified practitioner can also ensure that they’re high quality and aren’t adulterated with fillers.
“I think it’s important for people to manage their expectations when purchasing herbs and supplements. Many herbs and supplements are simplified, dumbed down, or less potent than what may be available through a practitioner,” he says.
Yashashree (Yash) Mannur is the director of Shubham Ayurveda Clinic and School in Fremont, California. She received her Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery in India and is known as a Vaidya in the Ayurvedic tradition. This means she received classical training and the designation of “traditional physician.”
Mannur emphasizes that herbs aren’t one-size-fits-all. She notes that when herbs become trendy, they’re often used out of context. This can have negative effects for health and the environment.
Turmeric, she says, is one example of this.
“I don’t think that people should take herbs just because they’ve heard they’re good…Then unnecessary production starts up for that particular herb. I’m extremely against that, because you should [only] take what you really need,” she says.
Hughes emphasizes that health is highly individual, especially when it comes to incorporating herbs. It’s a learning process that requires some trial and error.
“It’s important for everyone to understand that their individual health and healing is their own journey,” she says. “It’s important for people to begin learning about what makes them feel their best.”
Some herbs can interact with prescribed medications. Be sure to talk with your doctor, as well as a qualified herbal practitioner, to rule out possible interactions.
There are many herbal traditions that have their own history, lore, and herbal formulations.
Herbs that belong to one tradition might not be found in another. Some traditions recommended non-herbal treatments to accompany herbal formulas for optimal results.
That’s why it’s especially important to do research and talk with someone who knows their stuff.
Here are just a few examples of traditions that use herbalism for healing:
When herbs are taken out of the context of these traditions, they may be misunderstood or misused. Their qualities may be exaggerated or downplayed.
It’s important to remember that nearly every culture has their own system of traditional medicine. This means there may be significant differences in how herbal medicine is approached and used.
“Often, herbs are part of intact systems of traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda, that can give clues to finding optimal health in a way we don’t normally think about in Western culture. This can make the crucial difference in one’s individual healing path,” Hughes says.
Mannur emphasizes speaking with a knowledgeable practitioner to ensure safety. She advises against taking herbs simply because you’ve heard they’re good for you.
“It’s very important that you don’t take herbs based on your own research,” she says. “When you buy herbs online, the good qualities are highlighted. When you just go for those qualities, you’re unintentionally getting the unwanted qualities as well.”
Many herbal traditions empower individuals to study and work with herbs for their own health or that of their families. These systems not only consist of medicinal knowledge, but they preserve important cultural values, history, and traditions that extend beyond herbalism.
“I’m an advocate of keeping practical folk herbalism alive and in every home and encourage families and communities to share this information, cultivate these methods, and celebrate the individuals who are cultivating it,” Zappin says.
When you’re ready to purchase herbs, you’ll want to ask these questions:
Most importantly, ask whether an herb is appropriate for you, your body, and your specific health needs.
Herbs come from a variety of sources. They may be wild-foraged or grown on farms. Sourcing matters, because it can have an effect on the potency of herbs as well as the environment the herbs are grown in.
According to Mannur, herbs grow best in their natural habitat.
“The way we’re comfortable in our family environment, herbs also have a family environment,” says Mannur. “They have other herbs they’re supposed to grow with in order to enhance their positive qualities.”
Mannur prefers sourcing herbs from their natural environment when possible, though distance and the commercialization of herbalism make this increasingly difficult.
“There’s a certain method that’s described in the [Ayurveda] texts in terms of how to collect the herbs. You’re supposed to collect certain herbs in a certain season and a certain way,” Mannur explains. “That method isn’t at all followed nowadays. It says you’re supposed to pray to the plant and explain you’re taking the herb for the goodness of mankind.”
According to Zappin, it’s important to know where your herbs come from to ensure quality and transparency.
“If you can, source as much as possible in your community, and educate yourself about companies you source from and their practices,” Zappin says.
It’s important to consider how herbs are prepared and the best method for taking them.
Herbal preparations include:
The method used depends on what the herb is being used for, how it’s being stored, and how long you want it to last.
According to Hughes, processing herbs is necessary to preserve potency and make their use more practical.
“It’s important to realize that herbs have been processed for centuries and continue today to be processed before use,” she says. “There are some herbs that can be taken fresh, but, out of practicality, tradition, and sometimes safety, herbs are most often processed in some way before use.”
Mannur notes that medicated ghee and oil protect potency and also prevent herbs from going to waste.
“Infusing the herb in this way can add another year to its shelf life,” she says. “Fresh herbs may only have a day or two of potency.”
In Zappin’s opinion, tinctures are one of the best ways to consume herbs because they preserve potency, have a long shelf life, and, in some cases, can enhance the efficacy of the herb.
When shopping for herbs, determine whether you’re looking for fresh or dried herbs. Fresh herbs are often used in tinctures, teas or tisanes, and poultices.
Dried herbs are a bit more versatile and can be used in capsules, mixed in drinks, or taken plain.
According to Zappin, there’s no right or wrong answer to the fresh or dried question.
“Consumers should purchase fresh herbs if they’re going to be able to use them fresh or process them efficiently to get value out of them,” he says.
Otherwise, dried herbs are often more practical and may be enhanced by the drying process.
As mentioned before, it’s important to rely on trusted professionals to determine the quality and potency of herbs, along with your own research on processing and manufacturing practices.
According to Mannur, verya refers to the potency of an herb in the Ayurvedic tradition. She stresses that herbs are more potent than simply consuming food, and they should be administered in the proper dosage.
This can even be the case with common culinary spices, like black pepper, she says.
Mannur also says herbs that aren’t grown in their natural habitat might not be as potent as cultivated herbs.
Zappin emphasizes that finding the right herb for you is essential to success with herbal medicine. Dosage can often affect potency, but the point is moot if the herb isn’t the best choice for your needs.
“I appreciate looking to traditional methods and the intersection of quality and dosing. I also think that finding the right herb(s) for an individual can be more important than the ‘most potent,’” Zappin adds.
Herbs and supplements are unregulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which means that many of the products out there aren’t tested for quality, potency, or contamination.
Some may also include fillers that make production cheaper for manufacturers.
According to a 2019 study, almost 50 percent of herbal products tested had contamination issues in terms of DNA, chemical composition, or both.
Contaminants can include:
This means there’s good reason to do your research, ask questions, and get referrals from trusted practitioners.
“There unfortunately have been some bad actors in the supplement industry. This has led to unscrupulous brands marketing products that may be contaminated, adulterated, or simply high in heavy metals,” Hughes says.
In the absence of regulations, it’s up to the consumer to do their own research. Buying herbs from a reputable, qualified practitioner is one way to ensure you’re getting top-notch quality.
Zappin also recommends researching manufacturing processes, buying from companies that emphasize quality control, and choosing organic herbs whenever possible.
Herbs aren’t regulated by the FDA. Unless you source herbs from a qualified practitioner, you’re relying on what’s on the package. This means you’re more or less at the mercy of the producer or manufacturer to determine the efficacy and quality of what’s inside.
Sustainability is another issue to consider when buying herbs. This includes sustainability for the planet, the ecosystems that support the herbs, and the individual herb species themselves.
While wild-foraged herbs may be the most potent, it’s important to consider if those plants are over-harvested or endangered. In that case, it may be better to go with a cultivated option.
Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. It all comes down to research and sourcing herbs from practitioners or companies that you trust.
“I’m a big advocate for sustainable and ethical herb use. There’s no one single solution for assuring sustainability of an herb. But I do firmly believe that the simple act of increasing the diversity of plants in one’s diet, whether for food or medicine, is the most important first step that we should all take,” Hughes says.
Hughes also points out that, ironically, demand can help protect some herbs that are threatened by environmental degradation.
“Biodiversity is only saved if it has [economic] value, and an increased interest in herbs and superfoods give them value,” she says.
Mannur emphasizes supporting organizations and companies that restore herbs and their habitats.
“I feel that sustainability for the planet is in planting the herbs. There’s a project [called Cauvery Calling] where people go to the rivers and sprinkle seeds so that naturally herbs will be more available,” she says.
Blended herbal products are usually the most readily available out there. They’re often sold at health food stores and boutiques, though, more and more, you can find them at online retailers and plain old grocery stores.
If the product was made in small batches by an individual or small company, you’ll want to ask them about where their herbs come from, how they prepare them, and where they came up with the dosage.
It’s also important to keep in mind that products that are mass-produced and packaged have to go through processes that may decrease the potency of the herbs inside. This is also true of fresh herbs that need to be transported long distances.
When it comes to fancy herbal drinks, infused chocolates, and skin creams, experts are mixed on whether these products have much benefit.
“I think that [packaged] herbal soft drinks rarely offer consumers meaningful value beyond a decent soda,” Zappin says. “That said, I appreciate the history of root beers, sarsaparilla, cherry soda, and the like that come from a tradition of the intersection of herbal therapeutics and a refreshing beverage.”
On the other hand, Zappin praises ghees and skin creams as effective herbal delivery systems that are found in traditional systems. He emphasizes that skin creams are only effective if the herbs in them are meant for the skin.
The case is very different with popular adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha, that seem to be in just about everything these days. Adaptogens are not meant for skin, he says.
“This is a faddish misuse of adaptogens and frankly a waste of good herbs and people’s money,” Zappin says. “[Herbs should be] used traditionally or backed by modern clinical research for topical application.”
Mannur is skeptical of many herbal products you might find at the store.
“I think this is absolutely a marketing strategy,” she says. “Because it’s natural, there aren’t good rules and regulations around it, so everything is available on the shelf for you.”
This leads to misconceptions about what herbs actually do, and it doesn’t protect consumers from potentially unwanted effects, she says.
The organizations below offer listings and directories to find qualified herbalists.
Certifications for practicing herbal medicine vary widely. Since it’s not a regulated profession, some people may offer herbal advice with minimal training.
Other professionals complete education, like master’s degrees and doctorates in herbal medicine, and they maintain licensure in their state.
If you prefer to see a licensed professional, consider a naturopathic doctor (ND) or a licensed acupuncturist (LAc). Some insurance companies even cover the visits.
Below are expert-recommended online herbal retailers where you can buy quality herbs with confidence.
Chinese herbal medicine is not widely available without a prescription from a licensed acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist. To find a licensed acupuncturist near you, try the directory of board certified acupuncturists at NCCAOM.
Herbalism is a complex science that stems from a diverse array of traditions, cultures, and worldviews. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Working with a qualified practitioner is the safest, most effective way to use herbs to support your health and wellness.
With a little bit of research and guidance from qualified experts, herbal medicine can be a powerful spoke on the wheel of overall health.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.
Last medically reviewed on May 13, 2021