What Is Herbalism, And How Does It Work?

If you’ve ever looked up forms of holistic medicine or treatment, you’re guaranteed to have come across herbalism, an incredibly popular and traditional philosophy and practice that has been utilised ever since ancient times. 

What Is Herbalism, And How Does It Work

Herbalism has evolved and improved over the years, becoming a widely recognised form of medicine nowadays with many different natural healing properties, and becoming far more modernised since its first inception. 

This can sometimes make it difficult to know how exactly herbalism is prescribed, and how it actually works in practice, but today, we’re going to clear things up by taking a closer look at herbalism, and what this form of treatment actually involves. 

Is Herbalism A Form Of Holistic Medicine?

Holistic medicine will often incorporate forms of treatment that are usually considered to be an “alternative” to modern medicine, so in this way, herbalism would definitely be considered a form of holistic medicine due to its history.

While there are records of herbs found in books called ‘herbals’ that date back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians, along with Ancient Greece, it is not clearly known how, or if they were used as a form of medicine. 

There have been many records within ancient history that have implied the potential usage of herbs as medicine.

Whether it’s India, Greece, or China, all of these countries contained ‘herbals’ that recorded the name and properties of specific plants, with the first known medical herbalist practice being Ayurveda in India. 

Herbalism as a form of medical treatment really started to gain popularity however during the “Great Age of herbalism” which spanned between the 15th and 17th centuries.

During this time, a lot of herbal books written in Latin and Greek were being translated which put much more attention towards the potential benefits of herbal medicine and treatment.

How Does Herbalism Work?

Herbalism, also commonly known as phytotherapy, is a type of medical treatment that involves the use of plants and plant extracts to heal illness, disease, and cases of emotional imbalance. 

Different herbs will act on different systems in the body, and while they are often used to soothe pain when someone is unwell, they can also be utilised to prevent any diseases from appearing or to simply boost energy, improve concentration, or help lose weight. 

Today, many conventional modern drugs originate from plants, for example, some of these include:

  • Aspirin (willow bark) 
  • Digoxin (foxglove) 
  • Morphine (opium poppy) 

As time moves on, medical institutions are constantly trying to develop new drugs from plants, with many companies engaging in large-scale pharmacological screenings of herbs just to uncover which are the most effective. 

Modern herbalism, especially in the Western world, has been integrated into modern medicine, and so it can be administered in many different ways including:

  • Pills 
  • Brewed as a tea 
  • Skin, lotion, gel, or cream 

How Popular Is Herbalism Today?

Herbalism in its modern form is an incredibly popular form of treatment, with statistics showing that no less than 80% of the worldwide population relies on herbs as part of their primary healthcare. 

With that being said however, while herbs are used in many types of mainstream medicine that are administered by doctors and professionals, there are still many herbalists (see also: What Are The Different Types Of Herbalists?)who serve their own herb remedies. 

In fact, the herbal-supplement industry is continuing to grow approximately 30% bigger each year, which gives you an idea of just how important herbs have become in the modern world of medicine. 

Nowadays, herbalism tends to take the form of modern medical supplements, however, this isn’t to say that the more ‘traditional’ way of using herbs for treatment has disappeared completely. 

Why Has Herbalism Been So Controversial?

What Is Herbalism, And How Does It Work

There are many people who argue that herbalism should not be formally recognised or used as part of modern medicine because of the lack of evidence of its effects, and because of the impact it will have on wildlife. 

After the World Health Organisation formally approved the usage of “traditional medicine” in China for example, some in the medical community argued that this form of “unproven therapy” would get in the way of legitimate medical research. 

There are also some who argue that the potential toxicity of certain plants could result in severe health-risking effects if prescribed to patients. 

Animal rights advocates have also pushed back on the integration of herbs in modern medicine, stating that it will only further endanger animals such as the tiger, bear, and rhino. 

There have also been many cases of companies advertising herbs in a very dishonest and untrustworthy way which has unfortunately caused a lot of people to lose faith that herbalism even works(see also: How Long Do Chinese Herbs Take To Work?). 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission began issuing warnings to hundreds of American companies that were falsely promoting specific herbs that could “heal” the virus, despite there being no evidence. 

Are Herbalists Statutory Regulated?

Herbs are not only utilised in mainstream forms of modern medicine since there are actually still plenty of herbal shops in most countries around the world that offer a more traditional form of herbal treatment. 

In the UK and the US, herbalism is not statutorily regulated, meaning that plenty of herbal shops and herbalists still exist, and are still incredibly popular. 

With that being said though, given the controversy surrounding the use of herbs, herbalists must follow a specific code of conduct; they cannot diagnose or prescribe patients unless they have completed a degree in herbal medicine to gain insurance for practice. 

However, they are still able to legally recommend and educate individuals about certain herbs and their benefits.

When Should You Avoid Herbal Medicines?

There are a few scenarios where you should definitely try to avoid using herbal medicine, otherwise, it can lead to some very unpleasant side effects. Herbal medicines may not be suitable for those who are:

  • Taking other medicines 
  • Going to have a surgery 
  • Pregnant 
  • Elderly 
  • Children

Avoiding Fake Herbal Products Online

Herbal products that are sold online can very often be illegitimate and even full of banned ingredients or toxic substances, which can be very harmful to the body. 

When looking at a herbal remedy which is being advertised online, make sure to look closely at what ingredients are included, and always refer back to the government’s official list of banned and restricted herbal ingredients to know which you should be avoiding. 

With that being said though, there are a few key giveaways that a type of herbal medicine is not actually trustworthy, and a lot of this comes down to their proposed effects and benefits.

For example, it’s best to avoid any herbal remedies that claim to: 

  • Improve sexual performance 
  • Lead to a longer lifespan 
  • Cure chronic diseases 
  • Make you taller

Many illegitimate unregulated companies will try to use people’s trust in herbal medicines against them and will claim that they can produce some miraculous effects, which just aren’t possible. 

Always remember that legitimate herbal medicines will never be advertised as being an “all-in-one cure”.

They are simply an alternative type of treatment that has been shown to potentially ease pain and produce positive effects, and should always be recognised as being this before they are taken. 


Despite being around since ancient times, herbalism has managed to remain incredibly popular since it first began, despite its many controversies. 

Traditional herbalism is still very much alive today thanks to medical practitioners who have carried it on, but the most popular use of herbs is now in standard modern medicine where it has been altered and regulated as a reliable form of medical treatment. 

Clare McAfee
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