Herbal Medicine

What are herbal supplements?

Products made from botanicals, or plants, that are used to treat diseases or to maintain health are called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines. Herbal supplements are products made from plants for internal use. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, a dietary supplement is "intended to supplement the diet; contains one or more dietary ingredients or their constituents; is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is labeled as being a dietary supplement." 

Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications also are made from plant derivatives, but these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.

Herbal supplements come in all forms: dried, chopped, powdered, capsule, or liquid, and can be used in various ways, including:

  • Swallowed as pills

  • Brewed as tea

  • Applied to the skin as gels

  • Added to bath water

The practice of using herbal supplements dates back thousands of years. Today, there is a resurgence in the use of herbal supplements among American consumers. However, herbal supplements are not for everyone. Because they are not subject to close scrutiny by the FDA, or other governing agencies, the use of herbal supplements remains controversial. It is best to consult your doctor about any symptoms or conditions you are experiencing and to discuss the use of herbal supplements.

The FDA and herbal supplements

Herbal supplements are considered foods, not drugs, by the FDA and, therefore, are not subject to the same testing, manufacturing, and labeling standards and regulations as drugs.

Until 1994, the FDA had disallowed health claims of any kind on herbal supplements. The passage of the federal Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) in late 1994 started to reverse this trend.

In January 2000, the FDA updated the laws governing the labeling of herbal supplements, so consumers now can see labels that explain how herbs can influence different actions in the body. However, herbal supplement labels still cannot say anything about treating specific medical conditions, because herbal supplements are not subject to clinical trials or to the same manufacturing standards as prescription or traditional over-the-counter drugs.

For example, St. John's wort is a popular herbal supplement thought to be useful for treating depression in some cases. A product label on St. John's wort might say, "enhances mood," but it cannot, according to FDA regulations, lay claim to treating a specific condition, because the product has not been subject to the extensive clinical testing of FDA-approved medications.

Dietary supplements, unlike medications, are not required to be standardized to ensure batch-to-batch consistency. Some manufacturers may use the word standardized on a supplement label, but it does not necessarily mean the same thing from one manufacturer to the next because there is no legal definition of the term. 

Precautions when choosing herbal supplements

Herbal medications can interact with conventional medicines or have strong effects. Do not self-diagnose. Consult your doctor before taking herbal supplements.

  • Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the herbs you are taking by consulting your doctor and contacting herbal supplement manufacturers for information.

  • If you use herbal supplements, follow label instructions carefully and use the prescribed dosage only. Never exceed the recommended dosage, and seek out information about contraindications.

  • Watch for side effects. If symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, headache, or upset stomach, occur, reduce the dosage or stop taking the herbal supplement.

  • Be alert for allergic reactions. A severe allergic reaction can cause difficulty breathing. If such a problem occurs, call 911 or the emergency number in your area for help.

  • Research the company whose herbs you are taking. All herbal supplements are not created equal, and it is best to choose a reputable manufacturer's brand. Ask yourself:

    • Is the manufacturer involved in researching its own herbal products or simply relying on the research efforts of others?

    • Does the product make outlandish or hard-to-prove claims?

    • Does the product label give information about the standardized formula, side effects, ingredients, directions, and precautions?

    • Is label information clear and easy to read?

    • Is there a toll-free telephone number, an address, or a website address listed so consumers can find out more information about the product?

What are some of the most common herbal supplements?

The following list of common herbal supplements is for informational purposes only. Consult your doctor to discuss specific medical conditions or symptoms that you might be experiencing. Do not self-diagnose, and consult your doctor before taking any herbal supplements.

Black cohosh

This shrub-like plant of eastern North America derives its name from the Native American word for "rough" (referring to its root structure). It is generally used for alleviating menopausal conditions, painful menstruation, uterine spasms, and vaginitis.


Often used to strengthen the body's immune system, echinacea is also considered a prevention against colds and flu. This U.S. native plant is also called the purple coneflower.

Evening primrose

Oil from this night-blooming, bright yellow flowering plant may be helpful in reducing symptoms of arthritis, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and cardiovascular disease, as well as hyperactivity in children.


The pain-relieving properties of feverfew have been used for migraine headaches, as well as for menstrual cramps.


Garlic is generally used for cardiovascular conditions, including high cholesterol and triglyceride levels associated with the risk of atherosclerosis, a disorder of the arteries caused by cholesterol and plaque deposits in the artery walls. It is also helpful in preventing colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.

Gingko biloba

This herb is used for many conditions associated with aging, including poor circulation and memory loss.


Used as a general tonic to increase overall body tone, ginseng is considered helpful in elevating energy levels and resistance to stress.


This herb, native to America, is popular for its healing properties and antiseptic, or germ-stopping, qualities. Often used for colds and flu, it is also popular for soothing the nose lining when it is inflamed or sore.

Green tea

This herb is used to combat fatigue, prevent arteriosclerosis and certain cancers, lower cholesterol, reduce tooth decay, and aid in weight loss.


Hawthorn is popularly used for several heart-related conditions and is supportive in the treatment of angina, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure.

Saw palmetto

Saw palmetto may be helpful in the treatment of an enlarged prostate, a common condition in men over age 50.

St. John's wort

Wild-growing with yellow flowers, this herb has been used for centuries in the treatment of mental disorders. Today, it is popular for mild to moderate depression.

It is important to remember that herbal supplements are not subject to regulation by the FDA and, therefore, have not been tested in an FDA-approved clinical trial to prove their effectiveness in the treatment or management of medical conditions. Consult your doctor about symptoms you are experiencing and discuss herbal supplements before beginning use.