Herbal medicine refers to plants or plant ingredients that are used to maintain or improve health. The plants and the plant products are called herbs, herbal remedies, herbal medicinals, medicinal herbs, medicinal plants, and phytomedicinals.
The most popular herbal medicines include echinacea, thought to relieve cold symptoms; ginkgo and ginseng, sold to improve memory and alertness; and St.-John's-wort, which may relieve mild depression. Some herbs used to flavor food in cooking may have medical uses. For example, garlic may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Hundreds of herbal medicines are sold in a variety of forms. They are sold as bulk (loose or unpackaged) plants, as parts of those plants, and as powders, capsules, tablets, liquids, and extracts. Bulk plants are used to prepare the other dosage forms. In some products, herbs are combined with nonherbal ingredients. Extracts contain a strong solution of some of the ingredients. Liquid extracts and pills are the most popular forms.
Many people view herbal medicines as milder or safer than other drugs, but some plants contain chemicals that are powerful drugs. In fact, about one-fourth of all prescription medicines come from plants.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies herbal medicines as separate from nonprescription and prescription medicines. An herbal remedy is considered a dietary supplement, a product that is taken in addition to a normal balanced diet but is not a food or drug. Dietary supplements do not have to meet FDA rules for safety, effectiveness, and quality.
Scientists continue to research the safety and effectiveness of herbs. Even though herbal medicines are natural, they may cause side effects. Because herbal medicines act differently in different people, it is important to consult a doctor or pharmacist when taking them. The strength of the active ingredients in an herbal remedy may vary depending on how the plant is grown, harvested, stored, and prepared. Unwanted effects may result from an allergy, an impurity in the product, an interaction with other drugs, a misidentification of the plant, or a wrong dose. While the benefit of some herbal medicines may outweigh the risks, for some people the risks may be too high or unknown. Scientists are investigating the active substances, best doses, and right ingredients of herbal medicines as well as the effects that other medicines or food may have on them.
Alternative medicine refers to a wide range of healing practices that generally are not considered part of conventional medicine. In general, practitioners of alternative medicine use natural remedies and believe that the body can heal itself if given a chance. They feel that "invasive" treatments, such as drugs and surgery, should only be used as a last resort.
Some forms of alternative medicine-such as acupuncture, chiropractic, and naturopathy (use of natural agents, such as fresh air, massage, and exercise)-are well-established professions with standard training and licensing of practitioners. Other forms are less organized as professions. These include herbalism (use of remedies derived from plants) and homeopathy (use of minute amounts of substances that, in a healthy person, produce the same symptoms as those of the disorder). Still other forms of alternative medicine-including faith healing and psychic healing-are even further removed from the world of scientific and professional medicine.
During the second half of the 1900's, growing numbers of people became disillusioned with conventional medicine, particularly its expense, risks, and inability to cure certain common serious diseases. Many patients complain that conventional doctors too readily prescribe drugs as treatment. Others complain that conventional medicine is too impersonal-that it focuses on the disorder rather than the patient. Such disillusioned patients often seek out alternative practitioners.
Most doctors have regarded alternative medicine as unscientific. But an increasing number of doctors are trying to combine the best ideas and practices of both conventional and alternative medicine. This use of alternative medicine as a potentially helpful supplement to conventional treatments is often called complementary and alternative medicine.
Joseph I. Boullata, Pharm.D., Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice, Temple University.
Andrew Weil, M.D., Associate Director, Division of Social Perspectives in Medicine, University of Arizona.
Source : World Book 2005