Written by Katherine Nicholls

Katherine Nicholls

Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated February 2023 | Next review due August 2024

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. Here we will explore how herbalism can form part of your wellness routine and how a herbalist can support you.

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 in a medicinal way, 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 own uses and trained herbalists will be able to recommend the appropriate herb for the condition you’re seeking help with.

Herbalists are those who have studied the uses of herbs and are able to 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.

Holistic therapists who offer herbalism

Herbal medicine itself 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 localised 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 but you can have non-alcoholic versions. Oil-based preparations can be a lovely way of utilising herbal medicine externally on the body.

Other commonly used preparations include:

  • steam inhalations
  • baths
  • powders taken internally or applied externally
  • 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). 

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 get your doctor's approval 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
  • elderly people
  • young children

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.

What to expect when you visit a herbalist

When you first visit a herbalist, you will have a consultation where they can learn more about you and what you’re hoping to achieve with the help of herbalism. To make up a picture of your health, the herbalist will likely ask about your medical history, your diet and lifestyle, any medication or supplements you take and potentially your family’s medical history too.

You can discuss what it is you want help with and have the opportunity to ask any questions about herbalism and how it works. If you’re unsure about anything at any stage, be sure to bring it up with your herbalist, they should be more than willing to provide more details.

Once you’ve had your consultation, your herbalist will have a better understanding of what could be the underlying cause of your illness. At this point your herbalist will formulate a treatment plan, using whichever herbs and preparations suit your individual needs. Your herbalist may also recommend dietary or lifestyle changes to support healing.

After this initial appointment, you may require additional appointments to follow up and check your progress. You may then be asked to come back every three to six months, depending on the nature of your concern.

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, liquorice 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 it 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 really relax. Peppermint and eucalyptus are helpful if you’re feeling congested.

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