Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine has its origins in ancient cultures. It involves the medicinal use of plants to treat disease and enhance general health and wellbeing.

Some herbs have potent (powerful) ingredients and should be taken with the same level of caution as pharmaceutical medications. In fact, many pharmaceutical medications are based on man-made versions of naturally occurring compounds found in plants. For instance, the heart drug digitalis was derived from the foxglove plant.

Active ingredients and herbal medicine

Some pharmaceutical medications are based on a single active ingredient derived from a plant source. Practitioners of herbal medicine believe that an active ingredient can lose its impact or become less safe if used in isolation from the rest of the plant.

According to herbal medicine practitioners, the effect of the whole plant is greater than its parts. Critics argue that the nature of herbal medicine makes it difficult to give a measured dose of an active ingredient.

Medicinal uses for specific herbs

Herbal medicine aims to return the body to a state of natural balance, so that it can heal itself. Different herbs act on different systems of the body. Some herbs that are commonly used in herbal medicine, and their traditional uses, include:

  • echinacea – to stimulate the immune system and aid the body in fighting infection. Used to treat ailments such as boils, fever and herpes
  • dong quai (dang gui) – used for gynaecological complaints, such as premenstrual tension, menopause symptoms and period pain. Some studies indicate that dong quai can lower blood pressure
  • garlic – used to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of blood fats and cholesterol (a type of blood fat). The antibiotic and antiviral properties of garlic mean that it is also used to fight colds, sinusitis and other respiratory infections
  • ginger – many studies have shown ginger to be useful in treating nausea, including motion sickness and morning sickness
  • ginkgo biloba – commonly used to treat poor blood circulation and tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • ginseng – generally used to treat weakness, for example during recovery from illness. Also used to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, however overuse of ginseng has been associated with raised blood pressure
  • hypericum – commonly known as St John’s wort. Studies have suggested that St John’s wort is just as effective as some pharmaceutical antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression. It is also used for anxiety and insomnia. However, St John’s wort can interact with a number of prescription drugs, including the oral contraceptive pill, and stop them from working properly.

Do not self-diagnose ailments

It is very important that people do not self-diagnose any health conditions. Any medication (herbal or otherwise) should be taken under the supervision of a knowledgeable and qualified practitioner.

Unwanted effects of herbal medicine

Herbal medications and supplements may interact in harmful ways eg when you:

  • are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • are breastfeeding
  • drink alcohol
  • have kidney, liver or serious stomach problems
  • are allergic to any of the substances in the medicines
  • don’t take the medicine as directed
  • take a combination of prescribed medications and herbal medicines that interact with each other
  • use medicine prescribed for someone else
  • with over-the-counter or prescription medicines you are taking.

If you are considering taking herbal medications it is always a good idea to talk to your GP or health professional about possible side effects and interaction with other medications you are taking.

Where to get help and information

  • Your GP
  • Other qualified health professional
  • Pharmacist
  • Medicines Line (Australia) Tel. 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) – for information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines

Adverse Medicine Events (AME) Line Tel. 1300 134 237 – to report a problem with your medicine