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What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine is plant-based medicine and is potentially the oldest form of medicine we know of. A huge variety of plants can be used in a medicinal way, with each part of the plant having different medicinal qualities and requiring different approaches. Often, both fresh and dried plant parts can be used, but this will depend on the herb.


Herbs are made up of complex constituents that have unique qualities. These qualities can support the body to heal and overcome illness. All herbs will have their own uses and trained herbalists will be able to recommend the appropriate herb for the condition you’re seeking help with.


Herbal medicine can be used in different ways. Water-based preparations are common and can include the following:


- Infusions (steeped herbs in boiling water)

- Syrups (a thick, sweet liquid made with herbs)

- Poultices (cloth wrapped in moistened herbs for localised use

- Decoction (similar to infusions, but often used with harder parts of the plant material)

- Lotions (infusions or decoctions made into a smooth liquid)

- Compress (a wrung out cloth that’s been steeped in an infusion or decoction)

- Tinctures are another common preparation in herbal medicine, these are alcohol-based however you can have non-alcoholic versions. Oil-based preparations can be a lovely way of utilising herbal medicine externally on the body.

Other commonly used preparations include:

- steam inhalations

- baths

- powders are taken internally or applied externally

- gargles and mouthwashes

- pessaries and suppositories


Herbs can be used singly (known as ‘simples’) or mixed with other herbs to create a formula. Herbalists may recommend a formula they’ve made and used before, or they may make something unique to you.


Under the umbrella of herbalism, there are two main approaches, western herbalism and traditional herbalism (also known as Chinese herbalism). You can learn more about these styles on our dedicated pages.


Is herbal medicine safe to use?

Just like other forms of medicine, herbal medicine will affect the body and therefore has the potential to harm the body if used incorrectly. We should treat them with the same respect as we do conventional medicine, so do keep your doctor or pharmacist updated about any herbal medicines you’re taking.


If you fall into any of the following groups of people, be sure to speak to your doctor before trying herbal medicines:

- people taking other forms of medication

- people with serious health conditions, such as liver or kidney disease

- people who are due to have surgery

- people who are pregnant or breastfeeding

- elderly people

- young children

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