Herbal medicine, also known as botanical medicine, phytotherapy or phytomedicine, is the use of plants for healing. The leaves, flowers, stems, seeds, roots, fruits or bark may be used and ancient scriptures show that the Roman, Egyptian, Persian and Hebrew people all used herbal medicine to treat diverse illnesses.
The only form of medicine of the majority of the world
Every global culture has its own herbal remedies based on local plants and knowledge passed on over generations. Some examples include indigenous Australian, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine, Native American and European remedies. According to WHO, although herbal medicine is classed as ‘complementary’ in most Western countries, it remains the only form of medicine widely available to most people globally.
Pharmaceuticals’ herbal medicine roots
Many modern prescription medicines have their roots in herbal medicine and herbs work in a similar way to many pharmaceuticals. For example, aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree, the anti-malaria medicine, quinine, is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, morphine is produced from the opium poppy and CBD oil is derived from the marijuana plant.
Plants contain a large number of naturally occurring chemicals (constituents) with different biological activity. While pharmaceutical medicines use just one active ingredient, herbalists use herbs in their complete form, retaining the balance of a variety of constituents contained in the plant. Plus, herbalists believe that plants can effectively treat many conditions with far fewer unwanted side effects that are often seen in conventional pharmaceutical treatments. However, herbs can be very potent and, if misused, they can cause serious adverse effects.
Regulation of herbal medicines
Medicinal products containing herbs are regulated in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). If ingredients are deemed higher risk due to toxicity, likely length of use, side effects, interactions or other features, they will be classified a registered medicine. In this case, the product will have the designation AUST R on the label. The product can be labelled a listed medicine with an AUST L label if deemed low risk.
The TGA publishes safety alerts/advisories on its website about medicines of concern and advises consumers to exercise extreme caution in buying medicines over the Internet. This is because medicines bought from overseas may not meet the same standards as medicines approved in Australia; they may even contain unauthorised and potentially harmful ingredients.
Herbal medicines have a very long history of use all over the world. Australian supplementary medicines are the most highly regulated in the word and a qualified health professional can provide useful guidance pertinent to individual needs.