For centuries, cultures around the world have relied on traditional herbal medicine to meet their healthcare needs.
Despite medical and technological advancements of the modern era, the global demand for herbal remedies is on the rise. In fact, it’s estimated that this industry grosses about $60 billion annually (1Trusted Source).
Some natural remedies may be more affordable and accessible than conventional medicines, and many people prefer using them because they align with their personal health ideologies .
All the same, you may wonder whether herbal options are effective.
Here are some of the world’s most popular herbal medicines, including their main benefits, uses, and relevant safety information.
Echinacea, or coneflower, is a flowering plant and popular herbal remedy.
Originally from North America, it has long been used in Native American practices to treat a variety of ailments, including wounds, burns, toothaches, sore throat, and upset stomach .
Most parts of the plant, including the leaves, petals, and roots, can be used medicinally — though many people believe the roots have the strongest effect.
Echinacea is usually taken as a tea or supplement but can also be applied topically.
Today, it’s primarily used to treat or prevent the common cold, though the science behind this isn’t particularly strong.
One review in over 4,000 people found a potential 10–20% reduced risk of colds from taking echinacea, but there’s little to no evidence that it treats the cold after you have caught it .
Though insufficient data exists to evaluate the long-term effects of this herb, short-term use is generally considered safe. That said, side effects like nausea, stomach pain, and skin rash have occasionally been reported .
You can find echinacea in most supermarkets and health food stores, though you can also buy it online.
Echinacea is a flowering plant frequently used to treat and prevent the common cold. Research is limited, but it may reduce your risk of catching a cold by up to 20%.
Ginseng is a medicinal plant whose roots are usually steeped to make a tea or dried to make a powder.
It’s frequently utilized in traditional Chinese medicine to reduce inflammation and boost immunity, brain function, and energy levels.
Several varieties exist, but the two most popular are the Asian and American types — Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius, respectively. American ginseng is thought to cultivate relaxation, while Asian ginseng is considered more stimulating (5Trusted Source).
Although ginseng has been used for centuries, modern research supporting its efficacy is lacking.
Several test-tube and animal studies suggest that its unique compounds, called ginsenosides, boast neuroprotective, anticancer, antidiabetes, and immune-supporting properties. Nonetheless, human research is needed.
Short-term use is considered relatively safe, but ginseng’s long-term safety remains unclear. Potential side effects include headaches, poor sleep, and digestive issues .
Ginseng is available at most health food stores, as well as online.
Ginseng is an herbal remedy frequently utilized in traditional Chinese medicine to boost immunity, brain function, and energy levels. However, human studies are lacking.
3. Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba, also known simply as ginkgo, is an herbal medicine derived from the maidenhair tree .
Native to China, ginkgo has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and remains a top-selling herbal supplement today. It contains a variety of potent antioxidants that are thought to provide several benefits .
The seeds and leaves are traditionally used to make teas and tinctures, but most modern applications use leaf extract.
Some people also enjoy eating the raw fruit and toasted seeds. However, the seeds are mildly toxic and should only be eaten in small quantities, if at all.
Ginkgo is said to treat a wide range of ailments, including heart disease, dementia, mental difficulties, and sexual dysfunction. Yet, studies have not proven it effective for any of these conditions .
Although it’s well tolerated by most people, possible side effects include headache, heart palpitations, digestive issues, skin reactions, and an increased risk of bleeding .
You can shop for ginkgo online or at supplement shops.
Gingko is traditionally used to treat numerous illnesses, including heart disease, dementia, and sexual dysfunction, but modern research has yet to prove its efficacy for any of these purposes.
Elderberry is an ancient herbal medicine typically made from the cooked fruit of the Sambucus nigra plant. It has long been used to relieve headaches, nerve pain, toothaches, colds, viral infections, and constipation .
Today, it’s primarily marketed as a treatment for symptoms associated with the flu and common cold.
Elderberry is available as a syrup or lozenge, although there’s no standard dosage. Some people prefer to make their own syrup or tea by cooking elderberries with other ingredients, such as honey and ginger.
Test-tube studies demonstrate that its plant compounds have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties, but human research is lacking .
While a few small human studies indicate that elderberry shortens the duration of flu infections, larger studies are needed to determine if it’s any more effective than conventional antiviral therapies .
Short-term use is considered safe, but the unripe or raw fruit is toxic and may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea .
Keep an eye out for this herbal remedy when you’re next in a health shop, or buy it online.
Elderberry is used to treat cold and flu symptoms, with some research suggesting that it may be at least mildly effective. While cooked elderberry is safe, it’s toxic if eaten raw or unripe.
5. St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort (SJW) is an herbal medicine derived from the flowering plant Hypericum perforatum. Its small, yellow flowers are commonly used to make teas, capsules, or extracts .
Its use can be traced back to ancient Greece, and SJW is still frequently prescribed by medical professionals in parts of Europe .
Historically, it was utilized to aid wound healing and alleviate insomnia, depression, and various kidney and lung diseases. Today, it’s largely prescribed to treat mild to moderate depression.
Many studies note that short-term use of SJW is as effective as some conventional antidepressants. However, there’s limited data on long-term safety or effectiveness for those with severe depression or suicidal thoughts .
SJW has relatively few side effects but may cause allergic reactions, dizziness, confusion, dry mouth, and increased light sensitivity .
It also interferes with numerous medications, including antidepressants, birth control, blood thinners, certain pain medications, and some types of cancer treatments .
Particular drug interactions could be fatal, so if you take any prescription medications, consult your healthcare provider prior to using SJW.
If you decide to try it out, SJW is available online and in numerous stores.
St. John’s wort may treat mild to moderate depression. Yet, you may need to practice caution or avoid it because it interferes with several conventional medicines.
Precautions for using herbal medicines
If you’re considering taking herbal supplements, it’s best to consult a health professional to ensure proper dosage, understand potential side effects, and watch out for reactions with other medications.
Because herbal medicines are derived from natural sources, people often assume that they’re inherently safe — but this isn’t necessarily the case.
Like conventional drugs, herbal supplements may cause serious side effects or interfere with other medications you’re taking.
For instance, raw elderberries can be toxic, St. John’s wort can interact dangerously with antidepressants, and valerian root can compound the effects of sedatives.
Additionally, many herbal medicines have not been studied rigorously enough to verify their safety for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Thus, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should talk to your healthcare provider prior to taking any herbal medicines to ensure the best possible outcomes for you and your baby.
Another important factor to consider is that herbal medicines are not strictly regulated like other medications.
In some countries, such as the United States, herbal manufacturers don’t have to provide proof of efficacy or purity before marketing their products. As such, some supplements may list ingredients improperly or even contain compounds not stated on the label.
Thus, you should opt for brands that have been tested for quality by a third-party organization, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF International.