Does herbal medicine work?

Herbal medicines have been used widely for a large number of conditions over many thousands of years. Herbalists tend to treat chronic, benign conditions such as allergic disease (asthma and eczema), hormonal problems such the menopause, premenstrual syndrome and painful, irregular or difficult periods, headache (including migraine), irritable bowel, and arthritis (both rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis). In practice many herbalists will combine their suggested herbal remedies with dietary recommendations and a variety of nutritional supplements. The aim of the herbal medicine, particularly in these chronic, persistent complaints, is to generally improve your well-being, and perhaps slow down or modify the natural history of the illness from which you are suffering. Herbs can also be used to relieve depression or help sleep. Herbal medicines almost invariably work through the same biochemical and physiological pathways as conventional medications.

Echinacea root (American coneflower root)
The use of echinacea in the treatment of bacterial and viral infections is well established and there has been much research interest in the immuno-stimulating properties of this plant. Taking echinacea persistently seems to work far less well than taking it when you have an acute infection.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Several good clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of feverfew in preventing migraine attacks.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger has been shown to have a number of actions but it is probably best known for its effects in avoiding nausea and vomiting; there has been considerable interest in this in view of its lack of side effects in comparison with conventional anti-emetics.

Ginkgo biloba
The main indications for Ginkgo biloba are diseases of the circulatory system, particularly peripheral vascular disease in which the arteries are narrowed by the deposition of fat in the arterial wall. Ginkgo biloba can also help to improve circulation in the brain and so has been used to treat both depression and Alzheimer's disease with some degree of success. In Western countries standardised extracts from the leaves are available in tablet, liquid and intravenous formulations, and in France and Germany these extracts are among the most commonly prescribed medications.

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
The seeds of milk thistle have been used medicinally for over 2,000 years; this herb is useful in a whole range of liver and gall bladder conditions.

St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St John's Wort has long been used for its anti-inflammatory, mild sedative and analgesic properties, although recent research has demonstrated that it does have some anti-viral properties as well. St John's Wort has caught the public interest as the, "natural answer to Prozac", and there is no doubt from the clinical trials available that it acts very effectively as a mild antidepressant, although it is currently impossible to patent and make medicinal claims on the basis of traditional use.

Valerian root
The sedative action of valerian is well established and the herb compares very favourably with other conventional sleeping tablets in the treatment of insomnia.

Kava kava
Several well conducted clinical trials have shown that Kava is useful in the treatment of mild anxiety.

Chinese herbal remedies
Chinese herbal mixtures have been shown to be particularly useful in the treatment of eczema, especially childhood eczema.
Reproduced with the kind permission of BMA Publications from Professor George Lewith's book, Understanding Complementary Medicine.