Norman Howard BSc (Hons), qualified medical herbalist       

Supporting people to recovery and manage, using the healing power of medicinal plants.


Frequently Asked Questions


1.                       Why herbal medicine?

For chronic disorders herbal medicines generally provide a gentler, slower treatment without adverse effects.  Phytotherapy, western herbal practice supported by scientific research, has helped restore the health of people with many different kinds of conditions - digestive, circulatory, hormonal, musculo-skeletal, skin and respiratory (see here).  If you are contemplating using herbal medicine with orthodox medication there are risks of interactions and you should always seek professional help first.

2.                       Is herbal medicine the same as homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a quite different complementary therapy that uses solutions that have been diluted until there is in some cases statistically none of the original remedy's constituents left.  It also rests on the 'principle of similars' whereby medicines that produce symptoms similar to those in the disease yield beneficial results.  Medical herbalism makes use of plant remedies at concentrations and dosages that in many cases have been observed or tested to be exerting physiological effects.  Although some controlled trials have shown that certain homeopathic remedies have produced real effects (above ‘placebo’) these have not yet been explained fully in scientific terms. In other words, the mechanism by which these remedies may be working is unknown.

3.                       Is it any different to Chinese medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses herbs as well as other methods such as acupuncture but its philosophy differs from western traditions of herbalism.  TCM has an underlying energetics theory and its own language and methods of diagnosis.  It holds that the body has meridians through which energy flows. Western herbalism has evolved from ancient ideas on healing and in recent years has been influenced by science.  Modern practice relies on a combination of science and tradition.  The former provides medical knowledge for diagnosis and science has often confirmed some areas of traditional practice with regard to the healing properties of plants.  It is also worth pointing out that some western herbalists incorporate eastern ideas into their practice and some herbalists practice Chinese herbalism as well as the western form (though I don’t).

4.                       Why can't I get herbal medicine on the NHS?

In fact, it is possible at certain NHS centres, where herbalists are employed by doctors.  In practice, this is very rare but it could increase if phytotherapy became more widely accepted as a useful supportive therapy within the health service.

5.                       Will my doctor disapprove?

Herbalists aim to work with GPs and members of the medical professions for the benefit of their patients.  They refer patients on to them when it is appropriate and seek to obtain information from them, with patients' written permission when necessary.

6.                       Can I take herbal medicines with orthodox drugs?

Taking any medicinal preparation together with a herbal treatment should be done under the strict supervision of a professional herbalist and your doctor.  A qualified herbalist will check that no interactions should occur between a herbal medication and any orthodox drugs being taken.  An agreed herbal treatment plan will be considered very carefully after a full medical history has been taken at the initial consultation.  Progress will be closely followed and the treatment halted if necessary or changed, as appropriate. 

7.                       Can I pay for this on my private medical insurance?

At the moment, most policies will only pay out for treatments involving herbal medicines under the supervision of a medical practitioner.  Where medical herbalists work within the NHS at primary care trusts, their treatments are under the overall directions of GPs.

8.                       How long will I have to keep taking my herbal medicine?

This depends on the conditions being treated and the nature of the treatments.  Herbal medicines may be used to treat some acute conditions, which may last only a matter of days; but in practice, most conditions treated have lasted months if not years and take weeks if not months to treat successfully. 

9.                       How many appointments does it take?

Qualified herbal practitioners usually like to see their patients every 2-3 weeks to begin with and then every 4-8 weeks, to monitor progress and adjust the remedies, if necessary.  A rule of thumb says that you need a month plus one for every year of illness but this is not exact and recovery times can vary enormously.

10.                  Is there any risk?

Herbal medicines are generally very safe.  Qualified practitioners have spent the equivalent of 4 years studying the subject, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology and diagnosis (i.e. medical science).  They have also spent at least 500 hours in supervised clinical observation and practice, as part of their studies. Qualified herbalists undertake continuous professional development.  Care is taken to obtain information on interactions between herbs and medical drugs.

11.                  What side effects might there be?

This depends on the particular herbs prescribed and taken.  Qualified medical herbalists take every precaution to minimise the risk of any adverse effects and prescribe dosages accordingly.  However, it is difficult to predict allergic reactions and some herbs can produce unwanted effects in high doses.  For example, liquorice root, which is widely used to reduce inflammation and to reduce the effects of stress, can increase blood pressure if taken in high quantities over a long time; so, it must be used with caution particularly with those prone to this.  St John's wort, which is used to treat mild depression, can cause sensitivity to sunlight, at high dosages. Side effects are noted by practitioners via a yellow card scheme operated by their professional societies.

12.                  What is the typical outcome?

Therapeutic outcomes can vary but usually lead to their intended aims, particularly if the patient sticks to the prescribed treatment plan and takes the other lifestyle and dietary advice to support the plan.

13.                  What diseases lend themselves to such treatment?

Although herbal medicine can treat acute diseases, such as sore throats and the common cold, herbalists find that many of their patients come to them with persistent and chronic diseases, such as arthritis or eczema (see a full list in the About herbal medicine page).  Where patients need to be referred back to their GPs or hospital doctors, herbalists may treat the person at the same time, if the patient wishes and it is appropriate.

14.                  Should I consider other therapies too, such as chiropractic?

This depends on the patient and her/his condition and their needs.  A herbalist will refer onto another therapist as appropriate and in some circumstances a patient will see more than one therapist.

15.                   How many herbs are there in any mix?

Typically, an herbal treatment plan will contain at least one mix to be taken internally and this will often include several herbal tinctures.  Five or six herbs may be put into such a mix but it could be fewer or occasionally more.  ‘Simples’ (one herb mixes) may also used to treat specific things.  If appropriate I can make up herbal capsules for internal use.  External applications may contain one or two herbal extracts, such as in a lotion or a cream.  Please note that ready made-up herbal preparations made by third parties cannot be prescribed and supplied, owing to an EU Directive.

16.                       Why are some herbal mixtures tinctures and others teas or infusions?

Tinctures are widely prescribed these days but water-based extracts were popular at one time.  Alcohol dissolves plant constituents that are more complex and not so soluble in water: some of these may be very useful.  Tinctures also provide a convenient means of storing the herbal extracts.  However, for some conditions (for example those of the urinary tract) dried herbs are provided for patients to make their own infusions.  Tablets made from dried liquid extracts and capsules containing powdered dried herbs are also now available, and provide a convenient way to take plant medicines.

17.                       Where do the herbs come from?

I buy from reputable specialist suppliers who provide reliable herbs and herbal tinctures and other products. Where possible and if sold at reasonable prices, I buy herbs grown organically.

18.                       How long do they last on the shelf?

Dried herbs may not last more than a few months: it depends on the specimen and how it is stored.  Ideally, herbs and herbal preparations need to be stored in dry, cool and conditions away from light. Tinctures generally last longer than this and may keep for at least 2 years, particularly if in a high alcoholic concentration, but it depends on their constituents.  Tinctures containing volatile oils may not last as long as this, as these compounds can escape faster than other plant constitiuents.

19.                       Where should I keep them?

Where possible, herbal medicines should be stored in a dry, cool (under 16°C) place, away from light. Use canisters for dried herbs and keep bottles in medicine cabinets out of reach of children and animals.

20.                       Are standardized herbal medicinal products better than other ones?

"Standardized" extracts contain active constituents whose concentrations have been enhanced to a pre-determined target level (to maintain a perceived level of quality).  This artificially alters the balances of constituents.  A principle of traditional herbalism is to extract herbs from the whole of the part of the plant being used and not to add or subtract anything. 




This page was updated on 17th January 2017

Norman Howard