The Trauma Recovery Institute

Medicinal Herbs

Herbal medicine — also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine — refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside conventional medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine in treating and preventing disease.

What is the history of herbal medicine?

Plants have been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 BC. 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. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals. 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 past 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.

How do herbs work?

In many cases, scientists aren’t sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and they may work together to produce a beneficial effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect it, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.

How are herbs used?

The use of herbal supplements has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. That means herbal supplements — unlike prescription drugs — can be sold without being tested to prove they are safe and effective. However, herbal supplements must be made according to good manufacturing practices. The most commonly used herbal supplements in the U.S. include echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), garlic (Allium sativum), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), ginseng (Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng; and Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), ginger (Zingiber officinale), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Often, herbs are used together because the combination is more effective. Health care providers must take many factors into account when recommending herbs, including the species and variety of the plant, the plant’s habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants (including heavy metals and pesticides).

What is herbal medicine good for?

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as allergies, asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer, among others. It is best to take herbal medicine in the form of tea, tinctures, extracts or powders and as adjunct to your health strategy and under the guidance of a trained health care provider. For example, one study found that 90% of arthritic patients use alternative therapies, such as herbal medicine. Since herbal medicines can potentially interact with prescription medications, and may worsen certain medical conditions, 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. People with a history of seizures and people with fertility issues should also use concern; Speak with your physician.

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is said to elevate mood, enhance wellbeing and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies show that kava may help treat anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders.

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 noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. Several studies suggest that the herb is effective for treating symptoms, including frequent urination, having trouble starting or maintaining urination, and needing to urinate during the night.

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, and can potentially cause unwanted side effects, 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. However, Valerian does interact with some medications, particularly psychiatric medications, so you should speak to your doctor to see if Valerian is right for you.

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 review 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. Echinacea can interact with certain medications and may not be right for people with certain conditions, for example people with autoimmune disorders or certain allergies. Speak with your physician.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions, and in some cases, may have fewer side effects than some conventional medications. But because they are unregulated, herbal products are often mislabeled and may contain additives and contaminants that aren’t listed on the label. Some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, and some are toxic if used improperly or at high doses. Taking herbs on your own increases your risk, so it is important to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal medicines. Only Buy Organic or wildcrafted herbs and use mindfully. Some herbal supplements, especially those imported from Asian countries and no organic herbs, may contain high levels of heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. It is important to purchase herbal products , herbs and herbal supplements from reputable manufacturers to ensure quality. Many herbs can interact with prescription medications and cause unwanted or dangerous reactions.

You can make teas 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 5 – 10 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.

Example of some of the Main Herbal medical Systems

Western (Skullcap, Chamomile, Nettle, Dandelion, Burdock)
Amazonian (Chuchuhuasi, Chanca piedra, pau d’arco, cats claw, guayusa)
Chinese (Reishi, Eucommia, Shizandra, Astragulas, Ginseng)
Ayurveda (Tribulus, Turmeric, Mucuna, Ashwaganda, Bacopa)
Medicinal Mushroom (Reishi, Chaga, Shitake, Maitake, Lions main, Turkey tail)

Active Constituents in Herbs

Volatile oils
Cardiac Glycosides
Cyanogenic glycosides
Anthraquinones (Laxatives)

Key actions of Herbal Medicine

Also known as blood purifiers, these agents gradually and favorably alter the condition of the body. They are used in treating toxicity of the blood, infections, arthritis, cancer and skin eruptions. 
Some Alteratives include: Red Clover, Echinacea, Dandelion Root, Alfalfa, Marshmallow Root, Black Walnut Bark, Burdock, Calendula, Ginseng, Licorice, Raspberry Leaf, Wheatgrass Powder, White Willow Bark, and Nettle Leaf.
Herbs that are taken to relieve pain. 
Some Analgesics include: Echinacea, Chamomile, Ginger, Lemongrass, Noni Fruit, Skullcap, Turmeric, White Willow Bark, and Valerian.
Herbs that neutralize excess acids in the stomach and intestines. Many also have demulcent properties to protect the stomach lining.
Some Antacids are Dandelion Root, Slippery Elm Bark, and Kelp.


Herbs that help to inhibit abortive tendencies. The herbs will not interfere with the natural process of miscarriage when the fetus is damaged or improperly secured. Kelp


Herbs that relieve the symptoms of asthma. Some, like Lobelia, are strong Antispasmodics that dilate the bronchioles. Others, like Yerba Santa help break up the mucus. Some herbs like Mullein may be smoked for quick relief, which may also be taken as tea. Other Antiasthmatics include Acai Berry Juice, Ginseng, Rooibos African Red Tea, and Wild Cherry Bark.
Substances that inhibit the growth of, or destroy, bacteria, viruses or amoebas. While many herbal antibiotics have direct germ killing effects, they have as a primary action, the stimulation of the body’s own immune response. Excessive use of antibiotics will eventually destroy the beneficial bacteria of the intestines. In fighting stubborn infections it is a good idea to maintain favorable intestinal flora by eating miso, tamari, or raw vegan yogurt. Important antibiotic herbs include, Echinacea and Olive Leaf

Herbs that eliminate or counteract the formation of mucus. A treatment for catarrh should also include the use of herbs that aid elimination through sweat (diaphoretics), urine (diuretics), and feces (laxatives). 
Anticatarrhal herbs include: Cayenne Pepper, Ginkgo Biloba, Sage, Cinnamon, Mullein, Wild Cherry Bark, and Yerba Santa.


Cooling herbs used to reduce or prevent fevers. Cooling may refer to neutralizing harmful acids in the blood (excess heat) as well as reducing body temperature. 
Antipyretics include: Alfalfa, Skullcap, Dulse, Rosemary, White Willow Bark, and Kelp.


Herbs that can be applied to the skin to prevent the growth of bacteria. This includes the Astringents. 
Some Antiseptics include: Calendula, Astragalus, Chamomile, Hibiscus Flower, Nettle Leaf, Olive Leaf, Rosehips, Rosemary, Turmeric, White Willow Bark, Yerba Santa, and Sage.

Herbs that prevent or relax muscle spasms. They may be applied either internally or externally for relief. Antispasmodics are included in most herb formulas to relax the body and allow it to use its full energy for healing. 
Some Antispasmodics include: Astragalus, Cayenne Pepper, Chamomile, Eleutherococcus, Skullcap, Hibiscus Flower, Hops, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Licorice, Mullein Leaf, Nettle Leaf, Valerian, Passionflower, Peppermint, Red Clover, Rosehips, Sage, Spearmint Leaf, Yerba Santa, and Raspberry Leaf.


Substances used to improve sexual potency and power. Aphrodisiacs include: Astragalus, Burdock, Ginseng, and Maca Root.

Herbs that have a constricting or binding effect. They are commonly used to check hemorrhages and secretions, and to treat swollen tonsils and hemorrhoids. The main herbal Astringents contain tannins, which are found in most plants, especially in tree barks. 
Important Astringents include: Aloe Vera, Apple Fiber, Beet Root, Calendula, Cayenne Pepper, Cinnamon, Dandelion Root, Eyebright, Fenugreek, Hawthorn Berry, Hibiscus Flower, Mullein Leaf, Olive Leaf, Peppermint, Raspberry Leaf, Rosehips, Rosemary,st johns wart , White Willow Bark, Wild Cherry Bark, and Yucca Root.


Herbs and spices taken to relieve gas and griping (severe pains in the bowels). 
Examples of Carminatives include: Astragalus, Cayenne Pepper, Chamomile, Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Ginseng, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemongrass, Peppermint, Sage, Valerian, Wild Cherry Bark, and Yerba Santa.


Substances used to promote the flow and discharge of bile into the small intestine. These will also be laxatives, as the bile will stimulate elimination. Some Cholagogues are: Aloe Vera, Dandelion Root, Licorice, Red Clover, Wormwood, and Yerba mate.

Soothing substances, usually mucilage, taken internally to protect damaged or inflamed tissues. Usually a Demulcent herb will be used along with diuretics to protect the kidney and urinary tract, especially when kidney stones and gravel are present. 
Important Demulcents include: Apple Fiber, Burdock, Cinnamon, Dulse, Fenugreek, Ginseng, Kelp, Marshmallow Root Root, Milk Thistle, Mullein Leaf, Slippery Elm Bark, Licorice, and Oat Straw.

Herbs used to induce sweating. To administer Diaphoretics effectively, the stomach and bowels should be emptied by fasting and using an enema. However, laxatives should not be used before using these herbs. Sweating teas should be hot; when given cold, they act as diuretics. 
Some Diaphoretics include: Burdock, Calendula, Cayenne Pepper, Chamomile, Elder Berries, Ginger, Lemon Balm, Peppermint, Rosemary, and Spearmint Leaf.


Herbs that increase the flow of urine. They are used to treat water retention, obesity, lymphatic swellings, nerve inflammations such as lumbago and sciatica, infections of the urinary tract, skin eruptions, and kidney stones. Whenever a Diuretic is given, a lesser amount of Demulcent herb is also given to buffer the effect of the diuretic on the kidneys (especially when the Diuretic contains irritating properties) and to protect the tissues from the movement of kidney stones. 
Some Diuretics include: Alfalfa, Astragalus, Beet Root, Elder Berries, Hibiscus Flower, Marshmallow, Nettle Leaf, Burdock, Dandelion, Hops, Oat Straw, Red Clover, Yerba mate, and Hawthorn Berry.

Herbs that promote menstruation, usually causing it to occur earlier, and sometimes with increased flow. These have been used in the past to induce abortions, so extreme caution is advised. All of these, when taken in sufficient quantity to cause abortion, have other strong effects on the body. None of these should be taken when a woman wants to be pregnant. These are now commonly used to help regulate the menstrual cycle. 
Herbs with strong Emmenagogue properties include: Pennyroyal, Juniper Berries, and Black Cohosh. 
Herbs with some emmenagogue properties include: Aloe Vera, Calendula, Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and Nettle Leaf.

Substances that are softening, soothing, and protective to the skin. 
These include Aloe Vera, Fenugreek, Kelp, Marshmallow Root, and Slippery Elm Bark.


Herbs that assist in expelling mucus from the lungs and throat. 
Expectorants include: Eyebright, Fenugreek, Ginseng, Lemongrass, Licorice, Mullein, Nettle Leaf, Red Clover, Slippery Elm Bark, Wild Cherry Bark, Yucca Root, and Yerba Santa.


Substances that increase the secretion of milk. 
Anise Seed, Cumin, Dandelion Root, and Fennel.

Substances that arrest hemorrhaging. These include astringents and herbs that affect the coagulation of blood. 
Cayenne Pepper, Mullein, Nettle Leaf, and Raspberry Leaf.


Herbs that promote bowel movements. A strong laxative that causes increased intestinal peristalsis is called a purgative in many texts. 
Some laxatives include: Aloe Vera, Black Walnut Bark, Elder Berries, Licorice, Yerba mate, and Yucca Root.

Herbs that help to dissolve and eliminate urinary and biliary stones and gravel. 
For kidney and bladder stones, use Parsley, Dandelion Root and Nettle Leaf. 
For the gallbladder, use Wild Cherry Bark and Cascara Sagrada.

Herbs that calm nervous tension and nourish the nervous system. 
Herbs with nervine properties include: Chamomile, Hops, Passionflower, Rooibos African Red Tea, Rosemary, Skullcap, Lemon balm, Blue vervain, Damiana, Motherwort, St Johns wart and Valerian.

Herbs that destroy parasites in the digestive tract or on the skin. 
Parasiticides include: Chamomile, Cinnamon, Cloves, Black Walnut Bark, Nettle Leaf, and Wormwood.
Substances that increase the flow of blood at the surface of the skin and produce redness where they are applied. Their function is to draw inflammation and congestion from deeper areas. They are useful for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, and other joint problems and for sprains. 
Rubefacients include: Cayenne Pepper, Cinnamon, Olive Leaf, and Wheatgrass Powder.


Herbs that strongly quiet the nervous system. These will include antispasmodics and nervines. Useful Sedatives include: Valerian, Hops, Chamomile, st johns wart, Wild Cherry Bark, and Skullcap.
Substances that stimulate the flow of saliva and thus aid in the digestion of starches. 
Some Sialagogues are Beet Root, Echinacea, Ginger, Licorice, Rooibos African Red Tea, and Yerba Santa.
Herbs that increase the energy of the body, drive the circulation, break up obstruction and warm the body. 
Stimulants include: Bee Pollen, Cloves, Cayenne Pepper, Cinnamon, Echinacea, Eleutherococcus, Ginseng, Ginger, Ginkgo Biloba, Rosemary, Sage, Peppermint, Raspberry Leaf, Valerian, Yerba Santa,and Astragalus.
Stomachics – see Tonics

Herbs that promote the functions of the systems of the body. Most Tonics have general effects on the whole body, but also have a marked effect on a specific system. 
Some tonic herbs include: Acai Berry Juice, Alfalfa, Apple Fiber, Burdock, Cayenne Pepper, Dandelion Root, Fenugreek, Ginseng, Hawthorn Berry, Hops, Milk Thistle, and Yerba mate.

Herbs that encourage the healing of wounds by promoting cell growth and repair. 
Some Vulneraries are: Aloe Vera, Cayenne Pepper, Calendula, Fenugreek, Ginseng, Mullein Leaf, Rosemary, Marshmallow Roott, and Slippery Elm Bark.
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