What is herbal medicine?

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) herb

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Herbal medicine is the use of plant based medicines to restore and maintain health.

Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine in the world, with over 80% of the world’s population using herbal medicine as their only form of medicine (WHO statistic).

In the UK, herbal medicine is often seen as a ‘complementary’ medicine, as it can be used safely alongside orthodox medicine.

Many orthodox medicines in use today originated from medicinal plants, for example aspirin from willow bark, and digitalis from foxglove.

Medicinal plants have been used for thousands of years for health and nutrition, and modern scientific research is now starting to explain how that works. For example, Valerian has been shown to improve sleep in several studies* and is now available to buy over the counter as an alternative to sleeping tablets.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is another herb that has been studied extensively in recent years, research has shown that Ginkgo can improve brain function in people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia*.

Herbal medicine and the law

The herbal medicines dispensed by medical herbalists are often of a much higher strength than those available over the counter. The European Directive of Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products that came into force in 2005 changed the way herbal products could be sold, they needed to have a licence and a licence could only be obtained if a herb had been in use for 30 years. This has seen a huge reduction in the availability of herbal products in the UK.

St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) herb

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

In the UK the practice of herbal medicine exists under The Human Medicines Regulations 2012, regulation 3, para. (2), (6), (9), which states that herbal medicine products must be manufactured by the medical herbalist and must be dispensed from a suitable premise not available to the public. Regulation 241 states that schedule 20 restricted medicines can only be dispensed by ‘those qualified to do so’, medical herbalists hold that qualification.

For more information visit the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulation Agency (MHRA) website.


Bent et al (2006) Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Medicine (12): 1005-12 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17145239 [accessed 02/08/13]

Le Bars et al (1997) A placebo controlled, double blind, randomized trial of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia. Journal of the American Medical Association (278): 1327-1332 http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=418442 [accessed 02/08/13]


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