For centuries, cultures worldwide 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 rising. It’s estimated that this industry grosses about $60 billion annually.
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 9 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 various 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 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.
Summary: 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 steeped to make 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.
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.
Summary: 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 various 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.
Suggested read: Echinacea: Benefits, uses, side effects and dosage
Some people also enjoy eating raw fruit and toasted seeds. However, the seeds are mildly toxic and should only be eaten in small quantities.
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 most people well tolerate it, possible side effects include headache, heart palpitations, digestive issues, skin reactions, and an increased risk of bleeding.
Summary: 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 the 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, more extensive studies are needed to determine if it’s any more effective than conventional antiviral therapies.
Short-term use is safe, but the unripe or raw fruit is toxic and may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Suggested read: Turmeric and ginger: Combined benefits and uses
Summary: Elderberry is used to treat cold and flu symptoms, with some research suggesting that it may be 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 primarily 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 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 consult your healthcare provider before using SJW if you take any prescription medications.
Summary: 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.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an herb that belongs to the ginger family.
Used for thousands of years in cooking and medicine, it has recently garnered attention for its potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Curcumin is the primary active compound in turmeric. It may treat various conditions, including chronic inflammation, pain, metabolic syndrome, and anxiety.
In particular, multiple studies reveal that supplemental doses of curcumin are as effective for alleviating arthritis pain as some common anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen.
Both turmeric and curcumin supplements are widely considered safe, but high doses may lead to diarrhea, headache, or skin irritation.
Suggested read: Licorice root: Uses, benefits, side effects, dosage, and forms
You can also use fresh or dried turmeric in dishes like curries, although the amount you typically eat in food isn’t likely to have a significant medicinal effect.
Summary: Turmeric is renowned for its anti-inflammatory benefits and may be especially effective for treating the pain associated with arthritis.
Ginger is a commonplace ingredient and herbal medicine. You can eat it fresh or dried, though its primary medicinal forms are as a tea or capsule.
Like turmeric, ginger is a rhizome or stem that grows underground. It contains various beneficial compounds and has long been used in traditional and folk practices to treat colds, nausea, migraines, and high blood pressure.
Its best-established modern use is for relieving nausea associated with pregnancy, chemotherapy, and medical operations.
Furthermore, test-tube and animal research reveal potential benefits for treating and preventing illnesses like heart disease and cancer, although the evidence is mixed.
Some small human studies propose that this root may reduce your risk of blood clot formation, although it hasn’t been proven any more effective than conventional therapies.
Ginger is very well tolerated. Adverse side effects are rare, but large doses may cause mild heartburn or diarrhea.
Summary: Ginger contains several active plant compounds and may treat various conditions, although it’s best known for relieving nausea.
Sometimes referred to as “nature’s Valium,” valerian is a flowering plant whose roots are thought to induce tranquility and a sense of calm.
Valerian root may be dried and consumed in capsule form or steeped to make tea.
Its use can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was taken to relieve restlessness, tremors, headaches, and heart palpitations. Today, it’s most often utilized to treat insomnia and anxiety.
Still, evidence supporting these uses isn’t particularly strong.
One review found valerian to be somewhat effective for inducing sleep, but many of the study results were based on subjective reports from participants.
Valerian is relatively safe, though it may cause mild side effects like headaches and digestive issues. You shouldn’t take it if you’re on other sedatives due to the risk of compounding effects, such as excessive malaise and drowsiness.
Summary: Valerian root is often used as a natural sleep and anti-anxiety aid, though evidence supporting its efficacy is weak.
Chamomile is a flowering plant that is one of the world’s most popular herbal medicines.
The flowers are most often used to make tea, but the leaves may also be dried and used for making tea, medicinal extracts, or topical compresses.
For thousands of years, chamomile has been used as a remedy for nausea, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, urinary tract infections, wounds, and upper respiratory infections.
This herb packs over 100 active compounds, many of which are thought to contribute to its numerous benefits.
Several test-tube and animal studies have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activity, though insufficient human research is available.
Yet, a few small human studies suggest that chamomile treats diarrhea, emotional disturbances and cramping associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and pain and inflammation linked to osteoarthritis.
Chamomile is safe for most people but may cause an allergic reaction — especially if you’re allergic to similar plants, such as daisies, ragweed, or marigolds.
Summary: Despite the limited scientific evidence, chamomile remains one of the most popular herbal medicines in the world and is used to treat a broad range of ailments.
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 they’re inherently safe — but this isn’t necessarily the case.
Like conventional drugs, herbal supplements may cause serious side effects or interfere with your other medications.
Suggested read: The 6 best bedtime teas that help you sleep
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 before taking any herbal medicines to ensure the best possible outcomes for you and your baby.
Another essential factor 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. Some supplements may list ingredients improperly or even contain compounds not stated on the label.
Thus, you should opt for brands tested for quality by a third-party organization, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF International.
Summary: Herbal medicines carry many possible side effects, so you should consult your healthcare provider before taking them. When shopping, choose brands that have been certified for purity and quality.
Many people around the world rely on herbal medicines to treat health conditions. Countless varieties exist, but some of the most popular include ginkgo, ginseng, ginger, turmeric, and chamomile.
Though their applications are broad, many of their supposed benefits lack strong scientific evidence.
Remember that, like conventional drugs, herbal remedies may interact negatively with other medicines. Thus, it’s recommended that you consult your healthcare provider before adding a new herb or supplement to your routine.