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Is Herbal Medicine Effective? | Herbs vs. Modern Medicine

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Photo by Matt Montgomery

Is Herbal Medicine Effective?

When considering the question: "Is herbal medicine effective?” we often forget that many staples of the modern medicine cabinet were inspired by and imitate compounds found in herbal medicines around the world. While modern medicine and herbal medicine share some similarities, the way in which they are used to treat common ailments is often separated by a vital distinction: treatment of the symptoms versus treatment of the root cause.

In order to determine the effectiveness of herbal medicine we'll look at:

  • Herbal medicine vs. pharmaceuticals
  • What exactly constitutes a "drug"
  • Several instances of pharmaceuticals that mimic herbal medicines


Herbal Medicine vs. Pharmaceuticals

Let's take arthritis as an example; we’ll look at how western medicine and treating the symptoms compares with herbal medicine and letting the body heal itself.

Western Medicine Care Plan:

Lately you’ve experienced arthritis in your ankles and you’ve had difficulty getting around. You reach in the medicine cabinet for an anti-inflammatory NSAID such as ibuprofen or aspirin. You experience immediate relief of your symptoms and are able to walk around as you would have before your arthritis and continue to do so for another 5 or 6 hours until the pain in your ankles returns. You take another NSAID and you continue to walk around. This cycle repeats itself indefinitely; your symptoms temporarily improve, but your arthritis never goes away.

Western Medicine

Herbal Medicine Care Plan:

Herbal medicine practitioners would likely treat your arthritis through a preparation of foods or herbs rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) such as hemp seed oil. The GLA acts to hydrate the dried synovia and stimulates circulation in the arthritis-affected area, promoting your body’s natural healing mechanisms. However in this scenario, herbal medicine practitioners would tell you to limit your mobility and rest your ankles while they heal. In this instance herbal medicine will effectively cure your arthritis, however it is a slow process and you will not see immediate alleviation of symptoms like you would in western medicine.

Herbal Medicine

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Can Herbal Medicine Be Considered A "Drug"?

Western medicine encourages us to synonymize "drugs" with pills and capsules produced by chemists in a lab and it's easy to think that these pills and capsules are the only effective treatment against various ailments. Meanwhile, the actual definition of "drug" is any chemical or combination of chemicals that produces a biological or physiological effect within the body. 

If we are to accurately assess the efficacy of herbal medicine. Many herbs in fact contain chemicals that produce biological and physiological effects within the body, enough so that they are scientifically classified as drugs.


Herbal Medicine Is Effective vs. Placebos

We trust pharmaceuticals because they work better than placebos to treat our ailments. However when we remember that many pharmaceuticals are simply lab recreations of naturally occurring compounds found in herbal medicines, we begin to understand herbal medicine as a functionally effective alternative to pharmaceuticals.

Some of the top 10 herbal medicines used in the US like kava, gingko, and St. John's Wort have been shown to be as effective as pharmaceuticals in clinical trials; 5 are ranked as “likely effective” to “effective” versus treatment with placebo. This same efficacy rate, 50%, is the efficacy rate we see with many pharmaceuticals against placebos. So in terms of effectiveness and consistency, herbal medicine stands shoulder to shoulder with pharmaceuticals.

Tea Tree as Herbal Medicine

Tea Tree, Photo by Christine Wehrmeier

Examples Of Effective Herbal Medicines

Herbal and natural medicine is more common than we may realize, in part because many of us don’t think of these treatments as “medicine”. For instance, if you have joint issues you’ve probably heard of or tried fish oil caplets. Fish oil contains high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids which are very effective at combating joint inflammation. If you’ve struggled with acne you may have used tea tree oil, which has been shown to treat acne as effectively as a 5% benzoyl peroxide treatment. Some areas of the world even combat malaria using an herbal medicine, Cinocha bark tea, which contains quinine one of the most popular and effective malaria treatments in the world. While these are examples of oils and tea, they are herbal preparations that effectively treat medical conditions and should therefore be recognized as herbal medicines.


So, Is Herbal Medicine Effective? 

In many instances herbal medicines are as effective as modern medicines. However, it is important to note that herbal medicine traditionally (although not always) adheres to the idea of "long-term" treatment and encouraging one's body to rely on its natural healing mechanisms. There are instances where herbal medicine is not the best choice; for example there is no herbal alternative for the life-saving drug epinephrine in a severe case of anaphylaxis.


We have to understand when to turn to herbal medicine as an effective solution and when to turn to modern medicine. Both treatments have their advantages and disadvantages. There is a balance and striking that balance will most likely yield the most effective results.

About the Author

Jake Muniak

Jake Muniak

Jake is an avid proponent of podcasts, audiobooks, standup comedy and coffee. He travels frequently and uses WordPress, SEO and PPC knowledge to help small companies get more of a market share in their burgeoning markets.

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