Herbal medicines are plant-based substances used in the treatment and management of a disease. It is also used for general health and wellness purposes to prevent the onset of certain diseases and maintain the body in peak condition. Herbal medicines are widely used across the world. Most traditional systems of medicines use herbs as the primary modality. Plants have also been the source and/or inspiration of some 80% of today’s modern drugs (pharmaceuticals).

Action of Herbal Medicines

herbalHerbal medicines has a direct chemical effect on the body (pharmacological). Herbs have a host of ingredients, some of which are said to be the active ingredients for the desired therapeutic effect. For example, white willow bark that contains salicylic acid, the same ingredient in aspirin. In fact aspirin was made after the active ingredient, salicylic acid, was isolated and then manufactured synthetically.

The difference however, is that plants do not only contain the active ingredients as is the case with pharmaceutical drugs. Herbs have a host of known and unknown substances that may play a role in the treatment of diseases. However, the varying amounts of active ingredients between harvests and different batches within the same batch does pose a dosage challenge when utilising herbs for treatment.

Herbal Medicines vs Herbal Remedies

The terms herbal medicines and herbal remedies are often used interchangeably. To a large degree both are similar but there is a distinct difference in the quality, processing and distribution of each. Herbal remedies includes many over-the-counter preparations that can be purchased without the input of a practitioner or a prescription. Herbal medicines in South Africa are primarily acquired and dispensed by registered complementary health practitioners like homeopaths, naturopaths and phytotherapists.

Herbs that are said to be herbal medicines are usually of a much higher quality grade with individual batches tested for the quantity of active ingredients. These herbs are grown specifically for medicinal purposes and are therefore said to be medicinal-grade. Herbs that are used in over-the-counter (OTC) products are often non-medicinal grade that falls under the dietary supplement category. The herbs may have been grown for culinary purposes rather than specifically for medicinal purposes.

However, in recent years many health product manufacturers have realised the importance of using medicinal-grade herbs and have done so accordingly. Herbs are sourced from reputable suppliers growing medicinal-grade herbs, processed in laboratories and manufacturing facilities geared for herbal medicine preparation and marketed accordingly. However, the largely unregulated industry and indistinct differentiation between medicinal-grade and culinary-grade herbs has made it difficult for consumers to spot the difference.