Advantages and Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine

Sally Painter
Reviewed by Dr. Vilma Ruddock
Mortar of medicinal herbs, healthy plants, bottle of tincture or infusion

Discover the many advantages and disadvantages of herbal medicine before choosing it as an alternative treatment. Before treating yourself with herbs you want to seek the advice from a qualified herbalist, naturopath, or doctor to weigh the pros and cons of specific herbal treatments and remedies.

Proving the Advantages and Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine remains largely an unproven, inexact science. Although the history of herbal medicine provides centuries of anecdotal information, scientific study of herbal medicine is relatively new. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service National Institutes of Medicine created a new division in 1992, the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). However, compared to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) founded in 1906, NCCAM has only begun to scratch the surface of scientific research on herbal medicines.

Evidenced-Based Herbal Medicines

While herbalists, holistic therapists and naturopaths can offer personal experience in using herbs and successfully treating patients with herbs, there is very little evidence-based herbal medicine trials and studies to support these claims. Without the scientific data to validate the healing value of herbs, much of the herbal medicines remain classified as anecdotal evidence, in spite of historical use. This lack of scientific validation would seem to make it impossible for conventional medicine to accept the use of herbal remedies. However, many medical professionals see the value of herbal treatments and practice integrative medicine.

Problems With Many Herbal Medicine Studies

In examining the few trials conducted on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), researchers have found a lack of consistency in the trials. According to the US National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, "Proof of efficacy or safety for the vast majority of herbal medicine has not been fully established through an evidence-based approach."

Single Plant Herb Studies

The few herbal trial studies that have been conducted using randomized clinical trials (RCTs) followed the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH) Good Clinical Practice Guidelines that evaluate the efficacy and/or safety of the herb. Most of the trials were conducted on single plant herbs. This made evaluating the efficacy of a single herb difficult since most herbal treatments are a combination of herbs and rarely are a single plant remedy or treatment.

The mint extract in a small jar

Multi-Component Herbal Medicines

The issue with evaluating single plant herbs is how the herbs are administered by practitioners. Most prescribe a combination of herbs customized for the individual. This is especially true in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Chinese doctors will prescribe a tea that is then compounded in their clinic pharmacy just for the patient. These remedies are very difficult to evaluate in a trial study since they are individualized treatments.

Books On Evidence-Based Herbal Medicines

One of the most referrenced books written on evidence-based herbal medicines was written by Michale Rotblatt and Irwin Ziment and published in 2001, Evidence-Based Herbal Medicine. The book received good reviews from the Mayo Clinic and the British Medical Association's journal, BMJ. The writers reviewed 65 common herbal remedies, historical use of the herb, its pharmacology, the clinical trial evidence with respect to efficacy, the adverse effects to the herbs, any interactions with drugs, and the dosage information.

Not All Herbs Equal

Another issue in attempting to conduct trials on the effectiveness of herbs to treat illnesses is herb quality. Herbs are not regulated and the quality of one herb from another can be vast. This makes validation of herb efficacy impossible, especially when some herbs are adulterated.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Review

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been practiced for thousands of years. A review of Chinese medicinal herb studies found in the Cochrane Library for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B revealed a possible effective herbal treatment. The researchers concluded, "Some Chinese medicinal herbs may work in chronic hepatitis B. However, the evidence is too weak to recommend any single herb."

Chinese Herbal Medicine with Mortor and Pestle

Single and Compound Herbal Treatments

The review examined single and compound herbs. While these were found to have a positive effect in clearing hepatitis B virus and the diseased liver, the researchers concluded the positive results were more likely to be published than the negative trials and recommended further closely monitored trials were needed.

Review of Ayurvedic Herbal Medications

In another review of studies, the researchers examined Ayurvedic medication for the treatment of schizophrenia and concluded, "Ayurvedic medication may have some effects for treatment of schizophrenia but has been evaluated only in a few small pioneering trials."

Anecdotal Arguments Made for Herbal Medicine Advantages

In light of so few trials on the benefits and efficacy of herbal treatments, those arguing the advantages of herbs are left with anecdotal examples. The arguments made for the advantages associated with using herbal medicines are often done in comparison to pharmeceutical treatments, which have been studied more so risks are proven and known.

Oriental medical doctor with various dried herbal medicine

Reduced Risk of Side Effects and Safety

Herbal advocates claim there are fewer unintended consequences with herbs than with pharmaceutical drugs, but there is no trial evidence to support these claims. Advertisements and the accompanying literature for prescription drugs typically have a long list of possible side-effects, but without study, side effects remain largely undocumented and/or unknown. Some herbs do come with warnings, such as not to take if you're pregnant or lactating. Another argument in favor of herbal medicines is the safety factor versus long-term effects of non-herbal drugs. Again, this may be true in a personal experience, but there is little to no scientific evidence so far to back up such claims.

Herbs Are Food

The argument that herbs are safe by virtue of being a food is not necessarily valid. Herbs are touted as safe simply because they are foods. Most peole find this to be true in their personal uses of herbs. However, it should be noted that individuals can be allergic to herbs just as they are to any other food or not use them in proper dosage, causing problems.

Herbs Cost Less Than Modern Medicines

It is true that some herbs cost less than modern medicines. You can grow your own herbs and use in food preparations, make into tinctures, teas, and salves for a DIY medicine cabinet of remedies. However, high-quality herbs, such as those produced by Gaia Herbs cost more than cheaper herbs grown under less favorable, controlled and stringent conditions.

Herbal Supplements and Medicines Easily Available

The number of herbal supplements and medicines with easy availability is staggering. Wading through all the products and claims can feel impossible. You can purchase fresh and dried herbs as well as tablets, tinctures, teas, and powder forms without needing a prescription. Keep in mind, however, these are also then unregulated.

Effective Treatment for Chronic Medical Conditions

Some herbal practitioners have experienced a high percentage of effective herbal treatments for chronic ailments for individuals who didn't respond well to modern medicine. One example is the herbs and alternative remedies used to treat arthritis. Vioxx, a well-known prescription drug used to treat arthritis, was recalled due to an increased risk of cardiovascular complications. Alternative treatments for arthritis, on the other hand, have fewer side effects. Herbs often recommended as essential oil remedies include, lavender, myrrh and frankincense.

Herbal Massage

Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine

Herbs are not without disadvantages, and herbal medicine is not appropriate in all situations. There are a few of disadvantages to consider before turning to herbal medicine instead of modern medicine.

Emergency Conditions and Modern Medicine

Emergency conditions usually require modern medicine, such as a broken leg. A serious trauma, such as appendicitis that requires surgery or a heart attack are better served by modern medicine, diagnostic equipment, and treatments.

Lack of Dosage Standard

The temptation to self-medicate with herbal remedies can be a risk to your health. There is the danger of overdosing and causing great harm to yourself and your health.

Possible Toxicity from Wild Herbs

People who practice foraging wild herbs run the risk of misidentifying a plant. This terrible tragedy can easily happen since some plants often called doppelgangers are poisonous but look similar to perfectly safe herbs. It's always safest to grow your own herbs since they don't require a lot of space, money or care.

Medication Interactions

Herbal treatments can interact with medications. Nearly all herbs come with some warning, and many, like the herbs used for anxiety, such as Valerian and St. John's Wort, can interact with prescription medication like antidepressants. It's important to discuss your medications and herbal supplements with your doctor to avoid dangerous interactions as those listed by Karger Publishers. There can be both herb-herb interactions as well as herb-prescription medication interactions.

Lack of Regulation

Since herbal products are not regulated, consumers run the risk of buying inferior quality herbs. The quality of herbal products may vary among batches, brands or manufacturers. Some herbal remedies are adulterated, especially those from China and other foreign countries. As a result, people have become ill. In 2017, a woman died after drinking an herbal tea blend from a San Francisco herbalist/trading company. Several others became violently ill.

Examples of Herb Derivative Drugs

Despite the criticism of herbal medicine among some mainstream medical professionals, it should be pointed out that many common drugs used today were derived from plant-based sources.

Willow Bark and Modern Aspirin

PennState Hershey (Milton S Hershey Medical Center) states, "Some studies show willow is as effective as aspirin for reducing pain and inflammation (but not fever), and at a much lower dose." The Science History Institute describes how the original aspirin was derived from willow bark. The salicin found in the white willow bark was the basis for creating the synthetic acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin. Willow bark also contains very powerful flavonoids (anti-inflammatory compounds). According to PennState Hershey, "White willow appears to bring pain relief more slowly than aspirin, but its effects may last longer."

  • In 400 BC, Hippocrates prescribed willow bark to treat fever and inflammation.
  • In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), willow bark is used to treat pain associated with back problems, tendinitis, osteoarthritis, bursitis, and other inflammatory medical conditions.
  • In Europe, willow bark has been used for centuries to treat pain and inflammation.

Foxglove and Digitalis

Another well-known herb derivative is the drug, Digitalis, that's prescribed for specific heart conditions. This drug is derived from an extract of the foxglove flowers. This cultivar is potentially toxic when used incorrectly. In an article, Flowers for the Heart, published by the American Chemical Society, foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is the mother of a category of drugs that begin with the heart failure drug, Digitalis, often known as Digoxin and Digitoxin. Foxglove was an ancient Roman herbal remedy. In the 1770s, Dr. William Withering began researching the flower's medicinal properties and discovered it contains cardiac glycosides.

The cardiac glycosides found in foxglove increase heart contractions. Digitalis was created using these glycosides to alleviate edema caused by congestive heart failure. According to Chris Kilham (The Medicine Hunter), the Digitalis patent expired. Today, the most commonly prescribed Digitalis type drug is marketed under the generic name, Digoxin and the brand name of Lonoxin.

Naturopathic Flowers and Herbs

Weigh the Advantages and Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine

The bottom line is that herbs are medicines, and like other medications, they have some advantages and disadvantages. Visiting a physician for the correct diagnosis, consulting an herbalist for the proper herb and dosage, and embracing modern medicine when it makes the most practical sense is the best of all possible worlds for anyone who wishes to use alternative and complementary therapies.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Herbal Medicine