Treatments & Therapies

Herbal medicine – treatment, effect and risks

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine , also known as phytotherapy , is the study of the use of medicinal plants to heal and alleviate diseases. It is one of the oldest medical therapies and is part of medicine on all continents.

What is herbal medicine?

In herbal medicine, only components of plants are used to treat diseases. Leaves, roots, flowers, bark or seeds can be used medicinally. Isolated active ingredients, on the other hand, are not used.

The plant components are also pharmacologically referred to as drugs and can be prepared fresh, as a tea infusion, decoction, cold extract, juice, tincture, powder, essential oil or extract. Medicinal plants are natural products and their ingredients are therefore subject to natural fluctuations. Location, climate, harvest and storage influence the content of ingredients. The well-known active ingredients in herbal medicine include essential oils, alkaloids, bitter substances, coumarins, tannins, glycosides, mucilage and saponins.

Function, effect & goals

There are different forms of herbal medicine. On the one hand there is the traditional European herbal medicine. Until 1800 it was the basis of all medical therapies. In the 19th century, however, it was increasingly pushed aside by conventional medicine .

Special forms of traditional European herbal medicine are spagyric and aromatherapy . Rational phytotherapy is based on traditional phytotherapy. The effectiveness of the plants is checked here according to scientific evaluation standards. In Japan, too, there is a traditional herbal medicine.

This is also known as Kampo. Like traditional Japanese medicine, traditional Chinese medicine uses plants for therapy. In Chinese herbal medicine, it is customary for each patient to receive a mixture that is individually tailored to them according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Medicinal plants are also used in the tradition of Indian Ayurveda .

The possible uses of herbal medicine are very broad. Essential oils, saponins, mucilage, tannins and flavonoids have proven to be effective in treating respiratory diseases . Plants such as thyme , ivy, plantain , fennel , anise , marshmallow , spruce, primula or liquorice calm irritated airways , have an expectorant, cough-relieving and sometimes even antibacterial or antiviral effect.

Plants such as dandelion , milk thistle , artichoke , celandine , boldo or fumitory have a positive effect on the liver and bile . They can regenerate the liver tissue, stabilize the liver cells and can alleviate side effects of liver diseases such as nausea , loss of appetite or a feeling of pressure in the upper abdomen. In addition, some of these medicinal plants stimulate bile production and/or accelerate the flow of bile. This will also aid digestionstimulated. The so-called bitter substance drugs also have a digestive effect.

Bitter substances stimulate the secretion of saliva and gastric juice. The secretion of digestive juices from the pancreas is also promoted. Bitter substances such as gentian, wormwood, centaury, yarrow, calamus, ginger or pepper have an appetizing, antispasmodic, bilious effect and prevent flatulence . Therefore, they are best administered half an hour before eating.

Hawthorn is a well-known plant for strengthening the cardiovascular system . The procyanidins and flavonoids contained in hawthorn have a contraction-increasing and vasodilating effect. Hawthorn is therefore often used to treat heart failure , cardiac insufficiency or high blood pressure . Foxglove (digitalis) also contains heart-active ingredients. The cardiac glycosides are capable of increasing the beating power of the heartincrease and decrease heart rate. Cardiac glycosides are also used in the treatment of heart failure. Strictly speaking, however, therapy with cardiac glycosides is not part of herbal medicine, since the therapy does not usually use the entire plant or parts of the plant, but the active ingredient is isolated.

Means from herbal medicine are also used to increase the immune system. The best-known immune-stimulating plant is certainly the purple coneflower (Echinacea). But plants such as the Cape geranium or the water daffodil also have a positive effect on the immune system . Another area of ​​application for medicinal plants are diseases of the urogenital tract. In particular, herbal diuretics such as birch , goldenrod, nettle or horsetail are used here. In the case of inflammation of the urinary tract or the bladder, antibiotic plants such as nasturtium or horseradish have also proven to be helpful.

Risks, side effects & dangers

As a rule, phytopharmaceuticals are well tolerated and tend to have few side effects. In the case of organically caused, serious diseases, phytotherapy is not suitable as the sole therapy, but should only be used as a support after consultation with the doctor treating you.

For reasons of medicinal law and due to a lack of clinical studies, herbal medicine should only be practiced with extreme caution during pregnancy , while breastfeeding and in children under the age of 12. However, a responsible use of phytotherapeutics often shows great success here, so that therapy is certainly recommended, but should only be carried out by experienced doctors or naturopaths .

There are specific restrictions and contraindications for some medicinal plants or ingredients. Caution is always advised with allergies to daisy family. Many of the well-known medicinal plants belong to the daisy family. If allergy sufferers come into contact with the plants, this can, in the worst case, lead to an allergic shock . People who are allergic to daisy family should also be careful when using essential oils. Absolute contraindications for treatment with plants containing anthranoids are intestinal obstruction or acute inflammatory diseases of the intestine .

Anthranoids have a laxative effect and are found in, among other things, cape aloe, senna pods and rhubarb root. Since bitter substances stimulate the production of digestive juices, they must not be used for gastric and intestinal ulcers . The increased production of gastric acid would only irritate the mucous membrane of the stomach and intestines.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.