Herbalism is the tradition of studying and using herbs for their healing properties. Growing freely in the natural world, the term ‘herb’ refers to every part of the plant, from the roots to the flowers. Herbs have been used for their medicinal properties for thousands of years.
Herbalists are those who have studied the uses of herbs and can recommend certain herbs to help ailments. Herbalists take a holistic approach to illness, choosing to treat the underlying cause of a condition rather than the symptoms alone.
What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicine is plant-based medicine and is potentially the oldest form of medicine we know of. A huge variety of plants can be used medicinally, with each part of the plant having different medicinal qualities and requiring different approaches. Often, both fresh and dried plant parts can be used, but this will depend on the herb.
Herbs are made up of complex constituents that have unique qualities. These qualities can support the body to heal and overcome illness. All herbs will have their uses and trained herbalists will be able to recommend the appropriate herb for the condition you’re seeking help with.
Herbal medicine can be used in different ways. Water-based preparations are common and can include the following:
infusions (steeped herbs in boiling water)
syrups (a thick, sweet liquid made with herbs)
poultices (cloth wrapped in moistened herbs for localized use
decoction (similar to infusions, but often used with harder parts of the plant material)
lotions (infusions or decoctions made into a smooth liquid)
compress (a wrung out cloth that’s been steeped in an infusion or decoction)
Tinctures are another common preparation in herbal medicine, these are alcohol-based however you can have non-alcoholic versions. Oil-based preparations can be a lovely way of utilizing herbal medicine externally on the body.
Other commonly used preparations include
powders are taken internally or applied exte
gargles and mouthwashes
pessaries and suppositories
Herbs can be used singly (known as ‘simples’) or mixed with other herbs to create a formula. Herbalists may recommend a formula they’ve made and used before, or they may make something unique to you. Under the umbrella of herbalism, there are two main approaches, western herbalism and traditional herbalism (also known as Chinese herbalism). You can learn more about these styles on our dedicated pages.
Is herbal medicine safe to use?
Just like other forms of medicine, herbal medicine will affect the body and therefore has the potential to harm the body if used incorrectly. We should treat them with the same respect as we do conventional medicine, so do keep your doctor or pharmacist updated about any herbal medicines you’re taking. If you fall into any of the following groups of people, be sure to speak to your doctor before trying herbal medicines:
people taking other forms of medication
people with serious health conditions, such as liver or kidney disease
people who are due to have surgery
people who are pregnant or breastfeeding
How long will herbal medicines take to work?
As we are all different biologically, the amount of time our body takes to process and heal when using herbal medicines will differ. Factors that will influence how long it will take to feel better include the severity of your condition, your past medical history, and your current state of health.
Speaking to your herbalist about this will help you get a better idea of when you should feel the effects. As herbal medicine is all-natural, it may take longer than conventional medicine, but the effects should be long-lasting with minimal side-effects.
Three ways to use herbal medicine at home
After seeing a herbalist and experiencing the effects of herbal medicine, you may be tempted to try herbalism at home. We always recommend seeking support from a professional at first, but you can certainly enjoy the benefits of herbalism at home.
Firstly, it’s important when looking to purchase herbal preparations to ensure they have a traditional herbal registration (THR) marking on the product packaging. This means the product complies with quality standards relating to safety and manufacturing. It should also include information about how to use it. THR marked products are intended for illnesses that don’t require medical supervision such as coughs, colds, and muscle aches. A THR marking does not necessarily mean a product is safe for everyone to use, so if you’re unsure, always be sure to check with your doctor. You can usually find THR marked products in health shops, pharmacies, or supermarkets.
Be especially cautious of products sold online without this marking as they may contain banned ingredients that can harm your health. Below we share three ways you can use herbal medicine at home:
1. Make herbal teas
Brewing and drinking herbal tea is a great way to enjoy the benefits of herbs, especially if you’re suffering from a sore throat, cough, or cold. You can either use fresh herbs or dried herbs, just ensure they are safe to ingest. Some ideal herbs for tea include ginger, chamomile, licorice root, lemon, and sage. If using fresh herbs, simply rinse, add to the cup and pour hot water over them. If using dried herbs, an infuser or strainer can be used.
2. Use a herbal poultice
This is especially helpful if you’re treating something topically. Wrap the appropriate moistened herbs in a cloth (gauze or muslin works best) and hold against the affected area. You can either finely chop raw herbs and place them in the cloth, or place them in a saucepan with water to soften.
3. Try a herbal steam
This is ideal if you’re congested or are looking for a relaxing way to use herbalism. Simply add the appropriate herbs to a pot of just-boiled water. Breathe in the steam and take some time to relax. Peppermint and eucalyptus are helpful if you’re feeling congested.