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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Special Topics > Herbal Remedies
      Category : Health Centers > Alternative Medicine

Herbal Remedies

Alternate Names : Medicinal Herbs, Phytopharmaceuticals

The term herbal remedy applies to any plant or part of a plant that is used to make medicinal products. These parts can include the leaves, flowers, stems, roots, seeds, fruit, or bark. Herbal remedies are used to:

  • alleviate disease
  • detoxify the system
  • maintain a state of balance
  • prevent disease from recurring
  • support the immune system
  • Information

    Herbal remedies are one of the most controversial classes of complementary medicine. There are several reasons for this. When herbs are prepared, there is a lack of quality control and little standardizing. And some herbal remedies can have severe and even fatal side effects. Herbal medicine is not a regulated health profession in the United States. No government agency is responsible for providing a license to those who practice herbal medicine.

    The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, does not regulate herbal remedies. However, the FDA can remove from the market any herbal product that it considers unsafe. Herb manufacturers are not required to prove how safe and effective the herbs are. They cannot make claims that an herb can cure a disease. They may make statements about how an herb can affect the body's function or structure.

    One study showed that 60% of the ginseng products sampled contained so little ginseng that they were essentially inactive. In another study, researchers found that 2 out of 3 feverfew products tested contained no feverfew. Some herbal products have been found to contain prescription medicines but were not labeled as such.

    The best current research on herbal remedies is an extensive book published by the German government's Commission E. The Commission E in Germany acts much like the FDA in the United States. The book contains a review of the scientific research on certain herbal therapies. It also provides information about whether herbs work and their side effect. It is available under the title The Complete Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines.

    Most Frequently Asked Questions About the Use of Herbal Remedies

    Why use herbal remedies?

    Many people find that herbal remedies are a natural solution for their health concerns. Because they are natural substances, herbs cannot be patented. There is not a culture on earth that does not include the use of herbs as medicine in its historical records. Pharmaceutical companies derive 75% of all patented prescription medicines from herbs.

    Are herbs safe?

    Herbs are powerful medicines and should be treated as such.

  • Don't take the identity of an herb for granted.
  • Never use herbs to self-treat for serious medical conditions or persistent symptoms.
  • Don't use herbs in place of medicines prescribed by a healthcare provider.
  • Never take more than the recommended dosage of any herbal preparation.
  • Stop taking all herbs at least 2 weeks before surgery.
  • Start with low dosages because it's not uncommon to be sensitive to herbs.
  • Tell the healthcare provider and pharmacist about any herbal remedies being taken.
  • Stop taking an herb right away if there are any side effects.
  • Report side effects immediately to the healthcare provider and to the FDA's Med Watch line at 1-800-332-1088.
  • Choose products that give the Latin botanical name and the quantity of herb contained in them.
  • The March of Dimes has issued a statement linking some herbal remedies to birth defects and miscarriage. The association recommends that pregnant women avoid all herbal remedies unless advised by their healthcare providers.

    The American Society of Anesthesiologists has issued cautions about herbal remedies. Herbs can interact with medicines used before, during, and after surgery. A recent study focused on the effects of echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, kava, Saint-John's-wort, and valerian. It is best to stop taking all herbal remedies at least 2 weeks before planned surgery. Any herbal remedies taken should be mentioned to the surgeon and anesthesiologist.

    How do herbal remedies work?

    Despite extensive research and analysis, scientists are still unable to name every chemical component of herbs. They have not been able to reproduce most of them synthetically. Herbs contain vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. They also contain trace elements and healing agents. Herbalists have always believed that an herb is greater than the sum of its parts.

    How are herbal remedies prescribed and classified?

    Herbs are often prescribed to support body systems rather than to relieve symptoms of disease. For example, laxatives such as dandelion root are prescribed to aid the digestive system. Herbs are chosen for the individual, not the illness.

    How are herbal remedies prepared and taken?

    Herbal remedies are taken internally or applied to the skin. Fresh herbs can also be incorporated into the diet. The following is a list of some methods of herbal treatment.

  • Tinctures are made by soaking the flowers, leaves, or roots of the chosen herbs in alcohol. Tinctures keep well and are easy to store.
  • Infusions are less concentrated than tinctures. Infusions are made by soaking an herb in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. The resulting infusion can be used as a tea, or it can be applied externally to the skin.
  • Cold infusion involves soaking an herb in cold water for a long period, from 2 to 12 hours. It can then be either swallowed or applied to the skin.
  • Decoctions are similar to infusions but are made from roots, barks, nuts, and seeds.
  • A wash is an external application of cooled tea.
  • A poultice is a paste made from bruised fresh herbs or dried herbs moistened with hot water. It is placed first on a clean piece of cotton and then on the affected area.
  • Which problems can herbal remedies help?

    Herbal remedies seem particularly effective with skin conditions such as eczema. They are also used for urinary problems such as urinary tract infection and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Herbs cannot reverse the damage caused by serious or life-threatening diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or AIDS. However, they can relieve the symptoms, support the immune system, and improve feelings of well-being.

    How much is enough?

    When preparing herbs for medicinal use, it is important to consult a healthcare provider. Herbs have a powerful effect on the body. Plant freshness and potency often will vary.

    Author: Dr. Karen Wolfe, MBBS, MA
    Reviewer: Melissa Sanders, PharmD
    Date Reviewed: 08/10/01

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