The herbs available in most stores come in several different forms: teas, syrups, oils, liquid extracts, tinctures, and dry extracts (pills or capsules). Teas can be made from dried herbs left to soak for a few minutes in hot water, or by boiling herbs in water and then straining the liquid. Syrups, made from concentrated extracts and added to sweet-tasting preparations, are often used for sore throats and coughs. Oils are extracted from plants and often used as rubs for massage, either by themselves or as part of an ointment or cream. Tinctures and liquid extracts are made of active herbal ingredients dissolved in a liquid (usually water, alcohol, or glycerol). Tinctures are typically a 1:5 or 1:10 concentration, meaning that one part of the herb is prepared with five to ten parts (by weight) of the liquid. Liquid extracts are more concentrated than tinctures and are typically a 1:1 concentration. A dry extract form is the most concentrated form of an herbal product (typically 2:1 - 8:1) and is sold as a tablet, capsule, or lozenge.
Currently, no organization or agency regulates the manufacture or certifies the labeling of herbal preparations. This means you can't be sure that the amount of the herb contained in the bottle, or even from dose to dose, is the same as what is stated on the label. Some herbal preparations are standardized, meaning that the preparation is guaranteed to contain a specific amount of the active ingredients of the herb. However, it is still important to ask companies making standardized herbal products about their product's guarantee. It is important to talk to your doctor or an expert in herbal medicine about the recommended doses of any herbal products.


Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome, among others. Herbal supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider. Be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any herbs. Some common herbs and their uses are discussed below.
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been used in traditional medicine to treat circulatory disorders and enhance memory. Although not all studies agree, ginkgo may be especially effective in treating dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) and intermittent claudication (poor circulation in the legs). It also shows promise for enhancing memory in older adults. Laboratory studies have shown that ginkgo improves blood circulation by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of blood platelets. By the same token, this means ginkgo may also increase the effect of some blood-thinning medications, including aspirin. People taking blood-thinning medications should ask their doctor before using ginkgo.
  • Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is said to elevate mood, well-being, and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies have found that kava may be useful in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders. However, there is serious concern that kava may cause liver damage. It's not clear whether the kava itself caused liver damage in a few people or whether it was taking kava in combination with other drugs or herbs. It's also not clear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses, or only at higher doses. Some countries have taken kava off the market. It remains available in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory in March of 2002 regarding the "rare" but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products.
  • Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is used by more than 2 million men in the United States for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. A number of studies suggest that the herb is effective for treating symptoms, including too-frequent urination, having trouble starting or maintaining urination, and needing to urinate during the night. But a well-conducted study published in the February 9, 2006 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine found that saw palmetto was no better than placebo in relieving the signs and symptoms of BPH.
  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is well known for its antidepressant effects. In general, most studies have shown that St. John's wort may be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, and has fewer side effects than most other prescription antidepressants. But the herb interacts with a wide variety of medications, including birth control pills, so it is important to take it only under the guidance of a health care provider.
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a popular alternative to commonly prescribed medications for sleep problems because it is considered to be both safe and gentle. Some studies bear this out, although not all have found valerian to be effective. Unlike many prescription sleeping pills, valerian may have fewer side effects such as morning drowsiness.
  • Echinacea preparations (from Echinacea purpurea and other Echinacea species) may improve the body's natural immunity. Echinacea is one of the most commonly used herbal products, but studies are mixed as to whether it can help prevent or treat colds. A meta-analysis of 14 clinical studies examining the effect of echinacea on the incidence and duration of the common cold found that echinacea supplements decreased the odds of getting a cold by 58%. It also shortened the duration of a cold by 1.4 days.
Buying standardized herbal supplements helps ensure you will get the right dose and the effects similar to human clinical trials. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about which herbal supplements are the best choice for your health concerns.


Plants had been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds, and over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of drugs.
Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. In Germany, about 600 - 700 plant-based medicines are available and are prescribed by some 70% of German physicians. In the last 20 years in the United States, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in herbal medicine use.