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Herbal medicine and medical herbs

What Is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine, also known as herbalism or botanical medicine, is a medical system based on the use of plants or plant extracts that may be eaten or applied to the skin. Since ancient times, herbal medicine has been used by many different cultures throughout the world to treat illness and to assist bodily functions. While herbal medicine is not a licensed profession in the United States, herbal remedies in the form of extracts, tinctures, capsules, and tablets as well as teas may be recommended by healthcare practitioners of many different disciplines as a practical way to address a wide variety of medical conditions.

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Herbal medicine blurs the line between foods and medicines – a line that, in many cultures, was never drawn in the first place. Using herbs and spices that have a disease-preventive effect in foods is one of the best ways to take advantage of their healing power. For example, it appears that the daily use of the spice turmeric in curry dishes is one reason elderly people in India have one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world.

History of herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is considered to be the most ancient form of healing. Herbs have been used in most traditional cultures and have had a major influence on many systems of medicine, including traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine, Native American and Indigenous Australian medicine and also conventional medicine.

Written records of Roman, Egyptian, Persian, and Hebrew cultures show that herbs were used to treat practically every known illness. The history of herbal medicine is actually part of the history of medicine itself and herbal knowledge came to Europe from the Middle East during the crusades. Many prescription medicines used today were originally derived from trees, shrubs or herbs.

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Herbal medicine is used worldwide

Today there are many types of herbal medicine, which have been developed by different cultures around the world. In Australia, the most common types are traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Indigenous and Western (European) herbal medicine. The different types of herbal medicine all have in common that they use medicinal plants, but they vary in which plants they use, how they prepare and apply them and the philosophies behind their approaches to treatment.

Although herbal medicine is classed as ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ in most Western countries, it remains the only form of a medicine widely available to much of the world’s population.

Plants: an untapped healing resource

There are an estimated 400,000 plants known today, but only a fraction of these have been studied or used medicinally. Many researchers believe that there are plants as yet unrecognised for their healing powers. Pharmaceutical companies and others are actively investigating the potential of plants to provide new antibiotics and other medicines.

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How does herbal medicine work?

Herbs contain a large number of naturally occurring chemicals (constituents) that have some type of biological activity. Herbs work in a similar fashion to many pharmaceutical preparations. In fact, some pharmaceutical medicines are still obtained from plants. For example, the malaria medicine quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, and the pain medicine morphine is produced from the opium poppy.

Western herbalists, however, believe that herbs should be used in their complete form to ensure the balance of constituents contained in the plant is utilized. They consider that herbal remedies are of most benefit when used to treat chronic, ongoing conditions. There are generally no quick-fix herbal treatments.

Herbalists also believe that herbs can be very effective in the treatment of many conditions, but without the unwanted side effects that are often seen in conventional pharmaceutical treatments. Nevertheless, it should be realized that herbs can be very potent and, if used incorrectly, can cause serious adverse effects.

Also, some herbs can affect how your body responds to prescription and over-the-counter medicines, either decreasing or increasing the effects of these medicines. For example, St John’s wort can interfere with birth control pills, and gingko biloba can increase your risk of bleeding with anticoagulant (blood-thinning) medicines.

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Consult a herbalist

You should always consult a fully trained herbalist before using herbal remedies. Herbalists are trained to know how to mix remedies for specific conditions and symptoms and how much should be taken and for how long. They also aim to treat the person as a whole, using whole plant medicines to stimulate the body’s own healing abilities. Herbs are chosen to suit each person as well as to treat their disease or condition

Types of herbal remedies

Herbal remedies come in a variety of forms and may be applied internally or externally.

Herbal remedies that are taken internally include:

  • liquid herb extracts;
  • teas;
  • powders; and
  • capsules and tablets.

Herbal remedies that are applied externally include:

  • baths
  • compresses;
  • douches;
  • poultices and plasters;
  • oils;
  • ointments;
  • salves; and
  • wraps.

What Conditions Is Herbal Medicine Used For?

Herbal medicine has been used to treat or alleviate virtually every possible medical condition. Some of the most popular herbal remedies and the conditions for which they are used include:

  • aloe used topically for minor burns, sunburns, skin irritation or inflammation
  • arnica used topically for bruises, sprains, sore muscles and joints
  • chamomile tea ingested for upset stomach, heartburn, indigestion, and colic
  • comfrey, in a topical poultice only, for bedsores, diabetic ulcers, certain spider bites and staph infections contracted on tropical beaches
  • dong quai for women and ginseng for men and women, ingested to improve general health and stamina – in this application, these are known as tonics. Other tonics include eleuthero and Rhodiola.
  • echinacea ingested for colds, flu, sore throat
  • garlic ingested to possibly reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, treat fungal infections and colds
  • ginger ingested for nausea and motion sickness and as an anti-inflammatory
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  • mullein ingested for chest congestion and dry, bronchial coughs
  • passionflower ingested for non-sedating relaxation
  • peppermint tea ingested for indigestion, nausea and other digestive problems
  • peppermint oil (in enteric-coated capsules) ingested for irritable bowel syndrome and other chronic intestinal ailments
  • tea tree oil applied topically for fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and fungal infections of the toenails and fingernails
  • turmeric ingested to combat inflammation and protect against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease
  • valerian ingested for sleeping problems.

This is only a brief overview of some of the many safe and effective herbal remedies.

What Should One Expect On A Visit To A Practitioner Of Herbal Medicine?

What to expect depends on the type of practitioner you’re consulting. A medical doctor, osteopathic doctor, or naturopath may recommend an herbal remedy in the course of an office visit if you have made a specific complaint. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine or ayurvedic medicine may recommend an herbal remedy in the course of a consultation for a specific health problem or to address whole health from a holistic perspective.

According to the American Herbalist Guild, herbalists can practice either as primary health care providers or adjunctive health care consultants. The Guild explains that most visits to an herbalist begin with a consultation about your past and current health history, your dietary and lifestyle practices, or other factors related to your health issue. Then, according to the Guild “the herbalist, with your involvement, should develop an integrated herbal program that addresses your specific health needs and concerns.”

Are There Any Side Effects Or Conditions Where Herbal Medicine Should Be Avoided?

Yes. When taking medication, you should investigate possible interactions with an herbal remedy you may be considering. Be careful about mixing herbs and drugs that have similar actions. For example, it may not be a good idea to mix anticoagulant drugs with ginkgo, a natural blood thinner; the herb valerian, a sedative, probably shouldn’t be mixed with prescription sleeping pills. Similarly, avoid mixing herbs and drugs that have opposite actions. Other agents may alter the way a medication is handled by the body. For example, St. John’s wort, a natural remedy for depression, may reduce the effectiveness of some drugs by causing them to be metabolized too quickly. When in doubt, check with your pharmacist about herb/drug interactions. In addition, herbs that can thin blood, such as dong quai, feverfew, supplemental garlic, and ginger could cause problems if taken before surgery as could herbs such as ginseng and licorice root that affect heart rate and blood pressure. Sedative herbs like kava and valerian may increase the effects of anesthesia. It is best to stop taking any of these herbs at least 10-14 days before surgery and be sure to tell your physician that you’ve been taking them.

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  • Pregnancy:  It is best to avoid taking any herbs during pregnancy, especially the first trimester unless you’re under the care of a knowledgeable practitioner. Exceptions: it’s considered safe to take up to 1,000 mg of ginger in capsule or candied forms for morning sickness; short-term use of echinacea also seems safe for pregnant women who develop colds or flu.
  • Nursing: Apart from herbs that can stimulate breast-milk production (fenugreek, blessed thistle, and alfalfa), women who are breastfeeding should avoid most medicinal herbs for the first four to six months of a baby’s life.
  • Children: Herbal remedies that are safe for adults may not be safe for children. For guidance, see Healthy Child, Whole Child, by Stuart Ditchek, M.D. and Russell Greenfield, M.D.

Herbal medicine in Iran:

Medicinal plants have greatly attracted Iranians’ attention from ancient times. Great Iranian physicians believed that there is no pain without herbal therapy. A part of Avesta (the Holy Book of Merian – ancient Iranian religion) related to medical therapy art. According to the book, Serita was the first Iranian expert in medicine and Ahora Mazda (God) developed ten thousand herbals for him. Maads (the Kurds’ ancestors) founded medicinal knowledge of herbal plants about 9150 years ago. A great center of learning medicine was founded at Gondi Sapur University in the 4th century AD, which had a large hospital and an academy, and the first international medical congress was held there. After Islam appearance (1400 years ago), Iranian medical scientists had two distinct stages in participation in advancement of medical sciences: a) the age of translation, from 750-900 AD, when many graduates of Gondi Sapur translated the corpus of Galenic and Hippocratic works; and b) The golden age of creativity, from 900-1100 AD, that was the era of Iranian world stars in pharmacology and pharmacy such as Rhazes (850-932) and Avicenna (980-1037). In their period about forty different pharmaceutical dosage forms were used and different kinds of extraction and preparing herbal medicines were developed. They cared about different types of diseases such as cancer by means of herbal therapy.

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Natural and herbal medicines constitute 4 percent of the total amount of medicines used in the country, Nasimonline quoted Mahnaz Khanavi as saying on Tuesday.

People’s willingness to use natural and herbal medicines has increased in recent years, she noted.

Referring to recent statistics released at the end of [Iranian calendar year of] 1396 (March 2017-March 2018), she noted that the number of herbal medicines consumed in the country increased by 1.5 percent last year compared to a year before.

The Ministry of Health and the Food and Drug Administration’s policies are aimed at moving towards the use of natural or herbal medicines instead of synthetic drugs, she concluded.

According to the World Health Organization Traditional (WHO) herbal medicines are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances with minimal or no industrial processing that have been used to treat illness within local or regional healing practices. Traditional herbal medicines are getting significant attention in global health debates.

Medicinal plants still form the basis of traditional or indigenous health systems and are reported by WHO to still be used by a majority of populations in most developing countries.

WHO has adopted a strategy to promote traditional medicines between 2014 and 2023 to support member states in developing proactive policies and implement plans to strengthen the role of traditional medicine in the health sector.

Traditional remedies have long been used by the people, especially in rural Iran, and most households even in urban areas store herbal petals, essences, powders, and extracts to provide relief for different kinds of ailments.

Iranian traditional medicine(more…) dates back more than 3,000 years. Persian polymath Avicenna’s ‘Book of Healing’ and ‘Canon of Medicine’ are the most authoritative sources in this field.

Examples of medicinal plants and their common uses

Thymbra spicata   

The genus Thymus has about 400 species, all of which are majorly low spreading evergreen perennial subshrubs. About 40 species are native around the Mediterranean region and in countries of Western Europe to North Africa and in countries lying eastward to Japan. Thymbra spicata L. var. spicata L family Labiaceae is a lasting plant that the height of them varies between 15-40 cm and the plants are known with purple white flowers. Thymbra spicata is used as a spice in meals in the Silopi region. Besides, the dried plant is boiled and the hard part of it is applied to the wounds as a drug.

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There are some effective biological properties related to the essential oil of this plant. Biological effects of this plant consist of antioxidant properties, antibacterial, antimycotic. It has been reported that this plant has mostly antimicrobial effects. The essential oil main components were determined by GC/MS techniques are carvacrol, p-cymene, myrcene, γterpinene, α-terpinene, and trans-caryophyllene. This component has been tested against E. coli, S. epidermidis, B. subtilis, S. aureus, S. Typhimurium, K. pneumoniae, P. aeruginosa, E. faecalis, and C. albicans. The essential oil and carvacrol showed strong activity against all microorganisms, while P. aeruginosa, trans-caryophyllene showed activity only on C. albicans.  Another study revealed the extract composition by the mean of GLC and GC-MS.  The main components of the oils were carvacrol, thymol, γ-terpinene, and p-cymene. Moreover, eleven monoterpene hydrocarbons, two sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, and nine oxygenated monoterpenes were identified. The essential oil and carvacrol also showed strong antimycobacterial activity.


Lavender (Lavandula) is a genus of 39 species of angiosperms plants and is a member of Lamiaceae (the mint family). The different types of this plant range in height from 9 inches to 3 feet, while some may grow taller with age.  It is popular for its multicolored flowers, its fragrance and capability to adjust itself with low water consumption. Lavender is consist of four major categories: L. angustifolia, is a frost hardy species that has many pretty cultivars, habit, and blossom color (formerly known as L. vera or L. Officinalis); L. stoechas is a large plant with greenish-grey foliage and late blooming with a very strong odor (sometimes known as French lavender); L. latifolia, a Mediterranean grass-like lavender; and L. intermedia, which is a sterile cross between L. latifolia and L. Angustifolia. The various lavenders have similar ethnobotanical aspects and foremost chemical essentials.

Micronesia across Africa, the Mediterranean, South-West Asia, Arabia, Western Iran, and South-East India. L. angustifolia commonly famous as English Lavender is one of the most popular plants which have been used in therapeutic purposes. English lavender has been shown different promising properties according to some studies.

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In fact, investigations have been shown that it has biological activities such as anticancer, antibacterial, antifungal, analgesic, antioxidant, and sedative effects relating to its linalool and linalyl acetate component which have been determined by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.  Lavender oil, in addition, has no potential for drug abuse. Recent studies on aqueous extract of this plant indicate that in the value of 200 mg/ml, it has shown significant memory improvement, while other studies have been shown that the dosage below 200 mg/ml can have potential anti-proliferative activities; according to one study there are significant changes in gastric cancer proteome after exposed to lavender extract . Considering the fact that lavender oil can be a powerful allergen, and other probable side effects can be accompanied with its extract more studies are needed to be established.

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Scrophularia striata 

Scrophularia striata are the member of flowering plants family called Scrophulariaceae. This family consists of about 3000 species and 220 genera. The plants are annual or perennial herbs with flowers with bilateral or rarely radial symmetry. It has a cosmopolitan distribution, most of them found in temperate areas, as well as tropical mountains. Many Scrophularia plants have long been used in Asian countries as a medicine for treatment of diseases; it has been used traditionally to treat eczema, wounds, goiter, ulcers, cancer, and fistulae. Some species of the family were used as relaxant and alleviation of abdominal pain, whereas their aqueous extracts have been used as a bath to lessen rheumatic pains. Recently, it is mostly known for antimicrobial, antiviral, anticancer, wound healing, and anti-inflammatory properties.

There are also some antiviral activates related to this extract which has been investigated against Newcastle disease virus (NDV). Biologically active compounds of numerous species of it have been identified; they have been known to be rich in iridoid glycosides, mainly aucubin and catalpol. Iridoids represent a large group of cyclopentan[c]-pyran monoterpenoids occurring asconstituents of sympetalous plants including ornamental as well as wild ones. Recent studies have been shown that different dosages of leaf and seed extract of this plant can possibly have significant antibacterial properties ;according to one study the 5mg/ml of this extract has significant antibacterial activity on both E-coli and Staphylococcus aureus ;additionally, other studies have been confirmed that this extract can have both anticancer activates, and also growth-inducing potential on normal cells at certain values. Further studies have been shown that, inasmuch as anti-metalloproteinase activities of this extract which is a key factor in metastasis, Scrophularia striata is a potent cancer healer.

Rosa Damascena    

Roses are one of the most notable groups of ornamental plants and their fruits and flowers are applied in a large number of different foods, nutritional products and a variety of traditional medicines. It is mostly grown in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Russia. It is one of the most important species of Rosaceae family flowers with large and colorful flowers. Rosa Damascena well known as Damask Rose is mostly grown for its wild application in perfumery, cosmetics and pharmacy purposes.

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Several pharmacological effects of this plant such as the therapeutic effect on premenstrual breast tenderness and reduction of inflammation, antimicrobial, antioxidant, mood relaxing, anti-spasmodic have been reported relating to its essential oil extract of the petals. Bacteriostatic properties against some kinds of bacteria such as Xanthomonas axonopodis spp. Vesicatoria has been reported. Anticancer properties have been evaluated on different types of cancers such as colon cancer which according to one study, it was effective on it mostly in its vapor phase. The antioxidant activity is related to methanolic extracts from fresh flowers of three rose species (Rosa damascena, Rosa bourboniana, and Rosabrunonii).

It is also reported that this plant acts on the central nervous system including brain with inhibition of reactivity of the hypothalamus and pituitary systems in the rat; ethanolic and aqueous extract improves sleeping time comparable to Diazepam. Ethanolic extract and essential oils of Rosa damascena has relaxant effects. Ultra-performance liquid chromatography coupled with electrospray ionization quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (UPLC-ESI-QTOF-MS) has been shown that phenolic composition in the methanolic extracts from the fresh flowers of rose species. The phenolic constituents were further investigated by direct infusion-ESI-QTOFMS/ MS in negative ion mode. Characteristic Electrospray ionization tandem mass spectrometry (ESI-MS/ MS) spectra with other diagnostic fragment ions generated by retro Diels–Alder (RDA) fragmentation pathways were recorded for the flavonoids. The partially purified acetone fraction (AF) from silica gel column chromatography was found to be the active fraction with antioxidant properties.

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Cuminum cyminum  

Cuminum cyminum is from the flowering family an annual herb native to Egypt and Syria. It is widely cultivated as a cold season crop on the plains and as summer crop on the hills in Northern India, the Himalayas and the Punjab, Balochistan, Kashmir, Kumaon, and Garhwal etc. They have also been reported from several New Kingdom levels of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. Cumin oil is employed beneficially in many kinds of flavoring preparations. It is also used to an extent in soap perfumery and in flavoring beverages. In addition, Cuminum cyminum has a powerful odor and is used as a spice compounding synthetic floral perfumes in many countries. Seeds reduced to powder, mixed with honey, salts and butter are practical to scorpion bites.

It is also used in indigenous medicines as a stimulant and carminative. Several therapeutic effects are accompanied with effective ingredients of this plant; anticancer, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticonvulsant properties are the most well-known. It has been investigated that this plant can be useful for the control of bacterial diseases. The major components in the oil extraction of this plant compose of this plant is Cuminal (36.31%), cuminic alcohol (16.92%), γterpinene (11.14%), safranal (10.87%), p-cymene (9.85%) and β-pinene (7.75%). Cancer chemopreventive properties of this plant could be attributed to its ability to modulate carcinogen metabolism[60]. In fact, analytical data provide considerable information about the pharmaceutical properties of this plant against colon cancer. Essential oil effects on cell survival in two different ways; evaporation part reduces the cell growth enormously of both cancer and fibroblast cells. Soluble part, on the other hand, stimulates cell growth of fibroblast cells, while reduces cell growth of cancer cells.

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