Herbs have been used for thousands of years in many different cultures to treat illness. The word herb simply refers to a plant or a part of a plant that is used for medicinal purposes, or as a spice or fragrance.

Herbal medicines generally work the same as conventional medications—they contain chemical ingredients that have an effect on our bodies when we take them.

You may use herbal remedies to treat minor symptoms instead of an over-the-counter medication. They are commonly used to treat ailments like stomach discomfort, cold, flu, headache, menstrual pain, insomnia, minor aches and pains, and digestive problems such as diarrhea or constipation. There are also herbal remedies believed to relieve depression, anxiety, PMS or stress.

Here are a few commonly used herbal medicines…

You can use aloe topically, as a gel or liquid, to treat a variety of skin condtions—sunburn, scrapes, dry skin, itch, pain and swelling. It also has some antibacterial properties. While some people drink aloe juice to treat constipation or cleanse the digestive tract, the FDA warns that ingesting aloe may cause liver or thyroid problems.

This herbal supplement is most commonly used to prevent and treat colds. Several large studies have shown that echinacea is not effective at preventing colds, but that it can shorten the length of a cold—especially if you take it as soon as you get the cold. People with autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, or other disorders affecting the immune system, should not take echinacea.

Be a careful consumer. When products on the market were tested, about half of the products did not have as much echinacea as was listed on the label. Some didn't have any measurable amount of echinacea at all! Look for a brand name that you recognize and trust.

This herb is most often used to treat upset stomach and digestive problems—and recent research has shown that it can be effective in managing these symptoms. If you are on blood pressure medication, be sure to check with your doctor before taking ginger to avoid an adverse reaction. You also should avoid ginger before a medical procedure, since it can increase the risk of bleeding.

Widely used, this herb is said to be helpful for a wide range of conditions including memory problems, ringing in the ears, dizziness and hearing loss. Research shows that gingko may increase blood flow to the brain and that it may be helpful with some of these symptoms—but the results are still inconsistent.

Like many other herbal supplements, ginkgo can react poorly with other medications. So be sure to consult your doctor. Also, stop taking ginkgo before medical procedures.


Ginseng is said to increase energy levels, strength and stamina. It's also sometimes used to treat cancer and diabetes. While there is some limited evidence from research to support each of these uses, there is at least one study that suggests that ginseng may stimulate growth of cancer cells in patients with breast cancer.

St John's Wort

While this herb is generally used to treat depression, anxiety, PMS and seasonal affective disorder, the evidence of its effectiveness on these symptoms remains inconclusive. A few research studies have shown that it can be effective—but other studies have shown no impact.

What is known is that St John's wort can interact negatively with other medications, so it is very important to only take this herb under the direction of a physician. And pregnant or nursing women should not take St John's wort.

Black Cohosh

This root is used to treat the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause and menstrual problems. Some research results show that black cohosh helps in managing these symptoms. However, it isn't known if black cohosh works by increasing estrogen levels, which can cause problems for some women. Do not take this herb without first consulting your doctor.

Other Nutritional Supplements

  • Glucosamine
    This is used for joint pain and arthritis. There is good research evidence that this is helpful.
  • Melatonin
    It regulates the body's internal clock and helps ease sleep problems, especially if your sleeping schedule shifts.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
    Scientific evidence backs up claims that these help improve memory, concentration and mood, and also prevent cardiovascular disease. You need only take the DHA type of omega-3, which comes from algae (the same place the fish get theirs).
  • Probiotics
    These supplements, such acidophilus, promote health of the gastrointestinal tract. You can find them in yogurt cultures, but even higher amounts are available in pill form. They are especially helpful in preventing yeast infections when you take them during—or after—a round of antibiotics.

While research into how herbs work continues, we unfortunately still have a very limited understanding of the complex mechanisms underlying many botanical substances.

The FDA, which must approve the safety and effectiveness of conventional drugs before they can be sold, does not regulate herbal medicines. The responsibility to ensure the safety of products falls on of the manufacturer alone—but manufacturers often do not provide consumers with information about the potential adverse side effects or problematic interactions that might be caused by taking an herbal supplement along with other conventional drugs. Often there are no warning labels to alert people with certain conditions that their illness might be exacerbated by the herbal remedy.

It is very important to discuss taking an herbal medicine with your doctor before beginning any supplement. Remember that herbs are medicines and need to be taken with the same precautions as you'd use with any pharmaceutical drug.
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.