Delve into the world of herbal medicines and natural medicines, finding out where they came from, what they do and the science behind it.
Here’s a quick herbal medicine FAQ before we explore 25 of the most popular herb medicines.
A herb is typically defined as:
‘A plant whose leaves, flowers or seeds are used to add taste to food, in medicines or for their pleasant smell. Parsely, mint and oregano are all herbs.’1
The NHS defines herbal medicines as:
‘Those with active ingredients made from plant parts, such as leaves, roots or flowers.’2
Herbal medications/medicines have been used for centuries all over the world to help different cultures tend to their healthcare needs.
Since medicine has advanced so much over the last century and continues to do so, you’d think that herbal medicines would have become less popular, right?
You may be surprised to know that the herbal medicine market is currently on the rise!
A 2019 report into the changing views on medicinal plants their roles in British lifestyle revealed that:3
There are many different types of herbal medicine, some made from flowers, others made by roots.
You usually take them in capsule, tablet or liquid form. Some herbal therapies can also be bought as powders to mix into foods and drinks.
Some common traditional medicines made from herbs include:
But we’ll get onto those in more detail below!
Here are 25 of the world’s most popular herbal medicines + their background, health benefits and uses.
Also known as American coneflower, echinacea is a wild herb that grows in North America.
It’s been used as a traditional herbal remedy since the 1900s for a range of conditions from anthrax infections, pain relief and even snake bites!4
Echinacea works by stimulating the immune system – mostly thanks to polysaccharides and aklomides. It also had an anti-inflammatory effect inside the body.5
The EU’s Committee on Herbal Medicines classify it as a traditional herbal remedy, which can be used short-term to help:6,7
Ginseng is a popular herbal remedy and grows in some parts of northern America and Asia – it’s very popular in China, Korea and other Asian countries.
Scientists think that ginseng has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body due to its main active ingredients: ginsenosides.8
Ginseng may have the following health benefits:
Gingko biloba aka. maidenhair tree is a much-loved Chinese herb that has long been revered for its health benefits.
Ginkgo contains two important antioxidants:
These properties are thought to be responsible for most of its health benefits.
Ginkgo biloba may have the following health benefits:
You’ve probably seen little black elderberries growing in your local hedgerows and woodlands – but did you know they’re one of the most-loved herbal remedies?
Elderberries contain several properties that could be responsible for its reported health benefits, including:
Some evidence suggests that elderberries may help with:
Also known as Hypericum perforatum, St John’s wort has been used traditionally for depression sleep disorders and wound healing.
But what’s that got to do with Saint John? Herbalists named this flowering plant St John’s wort as it was harvested around St John’s day (24th June).
St John’s wort contains hypericin – a plant compound that scientists believe has a profound effect on the brain.28,29
Although there is no evidence that taking St John’s Wort can help people with severe depression, evidence suggests that it could help:
The golden-coloured spice turmeric (or curcumin) has plenty more benefits than simply spicing up your curries!
It is extracted from the root of the turmeric plant, which is from the same family as ginger.
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin that not only gives turmeric its golden yellow colouring, but also provides anti-inflammatory and digestion-promoting properties.33,34
Turmeric has been popular in traditional Ayurvedic medicine (originating in India) for centuries, and now Western medicine has jumped on the bandwagon, discovering that turmeric could help with the following:
Handpicked content: 10 science backed turmeric benefits & uses
The health benefits of ginger include helping to:
Valerian is a herb known for its calming and sedative effects that has been used as a traditional herbal remedy for centuries to help tackle insomnia, headaches, stress and anxiety.47
Valerian helps to relax the brain, although it is still largely a mystery how it does this.
One theory is that some of the compounds in valerian stimulate a chemical messenger in the brain called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) which helps to calm the nervous system.48
This is also the same pathway used by common sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs to help relax the brain.49
Based on its long-standing, traditional use, the EU’s Herbal Medicines Committee has approved valerian for the following:50
Research suggests that Devil’s Claw could help with:
The Mediterranean diet is often praised for its many health benefits and is considered one of the best ways to eat in the world, and olives can take a lot of that praise!
Olive leaf extract is yet another way to enjoy the health benefits of this tasty treat from the Med.
Olive leaf extract’s key active ingredients include antioxidants like oleuropein and polyphenols, which are thought to be responsible for its associated health benefits.58
Olive leaf extract could help support:59,60
Milk thistle is a pretty bright-pink flowering plant, with some pretty impressive health benefits to boot.
There is a trio of active ingredients in milk thistle called silymarin which is thought to be where milk thistle’s health benefits come from.
The silymarin found in milk thistle extract has been shown to help:61
Handpicked content: Best milk thistle supplements
Black cohosh is the root of a herb grown in Canada and the Eastern United States.
It was traditionally used by Native Americans to help with a whole range of issues from childbirth to kidney problems, and it now mainly used to ease menopausal symptoms.62,63
It’s not yet fully understood how black cohosh works, but it is thought it may change how the neurotransmitter serotonin behaves in the body.64
Other theories include that is may mimic oestrogen or have anti-inflammatory properties.
Black cohosh is said to help relieve menopause symptoms, particularly:65,66
Also known as Peruvian ginseng, Maca is another herbal remedy that could help women deal with menopause symptoms.
It has been used traditionally in the Andes region to help improve fertility and stamina.67
Evidence suggests that maca can have a positive effect on our hormones, which could be down to active plant compounds called glucosinolates, vitamins and minerals.68
Maca is thought to help with:
Ashwagandha is a little evergreen shrub that comes from India, the Middle East and Africa.
The name ashwagandha literally means ‘smell of the horse’ – because the shrub is said to have an equine pong to it!72
Ashwagandha is know for being an adaptogen, which means it contains a mix of amino acids and vitamins that can help us manage stress.
Where do we start? Ashwagandha has lots of potential benefits for our body, including helping to:
Officially known as Vitex agnus castus and chaste-berry, agnus castus has been used for centuries to help with female gynaecological issues and help control libido.
It is still taken today to help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Although it’s not fully understood how, agnus casus is thought to impact hormone-producing areas of the brain, like the pituitary gland.
It is thought that this leads to a reduction in prolactin – a hormone involved in PMS and other hormonal issues.81,82
Angnus castus is said to help:
Lemon balm is closely related to mint and has little to do with lemons, actually! It just has a citrussy lemon-like scent.
Lemon balm is full of antioxidants like rosmarinic acid, which could be responsible for its health benefits.
Lemon balm has been found to have the following health benefits:
Red clover is a flowering plant of the legume family, just like lentils and beans.
Its scientific name is Trifolium pratense and has been used by Chinese people, Russians and Native Americans to soothe conditions like whooping cough and asthma.91
Red clover contains isoflavones – a naturally occurring plant oestrogen or phytoestrogen that is now often used to tackle hormonal issues, like menopausal symptoms.92
The isoflavones in red clover could help to mimic the effects of naturally produced oestrogen, which may help:
As well as being super cute and resembling miniature yellow and green pumpkins, the garcinia cambogia fruit is also known for helping people to lose weight.
You may have already seen it listed on weight-loss supplement labels.
Garcinia cambogia fruits are full of vitamins and fibre, like all fruits, but the real star of the show is their active ingredient – hydroxycitric acid (HCA).
This chemical is found in the fruit’s rind, which is said to help people lose weight in the ways detailed below.98
Garcinia cambogia may help:
The less-fun counterpart of liquorice sweets (!), liquorice root has been used for centuries across the world for various health concerns.
These include lung, liver and kidney diseases. Nowadays, it is used for slightly different health reasons.
It’s not fully understood how liquorice root works, but research suggests it could offer the below benefits.
Liquorice root may help with:101
Who doesn’t love garlic? Well it turns out that people have been having a love affair with garlic for centuries, and not just in the kitchen.
These edible bulbs were first used as a performance enhancer and was even given to the first Olympians in Greece to give them a boost.102
Regular garlic is potent enough but wait until you get your hands on some black garlic!
This slightly gothic-looking garlic is simply normal garlic that has been aged to make it more potent in both taste and plant power.
The main active ingredient in garlic is called alliin, which converts to a sulphur called allicin when it’s cut or crushed. Scientists claim that allicin is both anti-fungal and antibacterial.
According to the EU Herbal Medicines Agency, garlic can help:103
Although herbal medicines are ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean they are safe for everyone to take.
Just like conventional medicine, herbal remedies will have an effect on the body and may not ‘agree’ with you or be downright harmful if not used correctly.
Make sure to read each and every label of herbal medicines before taking them to see if they are safe for you. For example, herbal medicines may not be suitable for:113
Always consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal medicines, as they may not be in your best interests.
Another way to reap the benefits of herbal remedies is through herbal tea.
Find out the special properties of some of the most popular teas and how they can help your body.
Last updated: 11 August 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.