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herbal medicines

The top 25 herbal medicines & the science behind them

11 Aug 2021 • 9 min read

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.

What is a herb?

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

What is herbal medicine?

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

  • Herbal medicines are popular, particularly among the 36- to 55-year old age group
  • Participants mostly used herbal medicines for minor self-limiting conditions
  • Popular reasons for use included that plant medicines are natural and have fewer side effects

What are the types of herbal medicine?

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.

What are examples of traditional medicine?

Some common traditional medicines made from herbs include:

  • Milk thistle
  • Devil’s Claw
  • Valerian
  • Echinacea

But we’ll get onto those in more detail below!

The 25 most popular herbal medicines

Here are 25 of the world’s most popular herbal medicines + their background, health benefits and uses. 

  1. Echinacea

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

What does it do?

Echinacea works by stimulating the immune system – mostly thanks to polysaccharides and aklomides. It also had an anti-inflammatory effect inside the body.5

Echinacea benefits

The EU’s Committee on Herbal Medicines classify it as a traditional herbal remedy, which can be used short-term to help:6,7

  • Soothe minor cuts, grazes and bruises
  • Relieve symptoms of the common cold, coughs and the flu
  1. Ginseng

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.

What does it do?

Scientists think that ginseng has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body due to its main active ingredients: ginsenosides.8

Ginseng benefits

Ginseng may have the following health benefits:

  • Short-term treatment of fatigue, weakness and lack of vitality9
  • Can help regulate blood sugar levels10
  • May help stimulate your brain11,12
  • Can help increase blood circulation13
  1. Ginkgo biloba

Gingko biloba aka. maidenhair tree is a much-loved Chinese herb that has long been revered for its health benefits.

What does it do?

Ginkgo contains two important antioxidants:

  • Flavonoids, which help protect cells and tissues from oxidative stress14
  • Terpenoids, which help dilate blood vessels and make blood platelets less ‘sticky’15

These properties are thought to be responsible for most of its health benefits.

Ginkgo biloba benefits

Ginkgo biloba may have the following health benefits:

  • Improving attention, memory and helping to maintain good cognitive function in the older adult population16
  • Tackling mild dementia17
  • Supporting blood circulation18
  • Easing anxiety19
  • Soothing tinnitus20,21
  • Increasing sexual libido22
  1. Elderberry

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?

What does it do?

Elderberries contain several properties that could be responsible for its reported health benefits, including:

  • Vitamin C, more than half of your recommended daily intake in fact!
  • Fibre
  • Antioxidants, including anthocyanins, flavonols and phenolic acids

Elderberry benefits

Some evidence suggests that elderberries may help with:

  • Reducing cold and flu symptoms23,24
  • Tackling oxidative damage caused by free radicals25
  • Supporting heart health26,27
  1. St John’s wort

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).

What does it do?

St John’s wort contains hypericin – a plant compound that scientists believe has a profound effect on the brain.28,29

St John’s wort benefits

Although there is no evidence that taking St John’s Wort can help people with severe depression, evidence suggests that it could help:

  • Increasing brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, which can help regulate mood30
  • Reduce feelings of anxiety31
  • Relieve symptoms of mild-moderate depression32
  1. Turmeric

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.

What does it do?

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 benefits

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:

  • Reduce inflammation35
  • Support joints36
  • Ease digestion issues37,38

Handpicked content: 10 science backed turmeric benefits & uses

  1. Ginger

The health benefits of ginger include helping to:

  • Ease digestion40
  • Soothe indigestion41
  • Tackle osteoarthritis symptoms42,43
  • Provide natural pain relief44
  • Relieve nausea45,46
  1. Valerian

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

What does it do?

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

Valerian benefits

Based on its long-standing, traditional use, the EU’s Herbal Medicines Committee has approved valerian for the following:50

  • Mild anxiety
  • Sleeping disorders
  1. Devil’s claw

Research suggests that Devil’s Claw could help with:

  • Lower back pain53
  • Digestive issues, like bloating and flatulence54,55
  • Osteoarthritis56,57
  1. Olive leaf extract

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.

What does it do?

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 benefits

Olive leaf extract could help support:59,60

  • Weight loss
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Brain health https:
  • Normal blood pressure
  • Immune system function
  1. Milk thistle

Milk thistle is a pretty bright-pink flowering plant, with some pretty impressive health benefits to boot.

What does it do?

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.

Milk thistle benefits

The silymarin found in milk thistle extract has been shown to help:61

  • Protect the liver
  • Regenerate the liver
  • Neutralise toxins that can damage the liver, like alcohol

Handpicked content: Best milk thistle supplements

  1. Black cohosh

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

What does it do?

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 benefits

Black cohosh is said to help relieve menopause symptoms, particularly:65,66

  • Excessive sweating
  • Hot flushes
  • Sleep problems
  • Low libido
  • Poor mood
  1. Maca

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

What does it do?

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 benefits

Maca is thought to help with:

  • Easing menopause symptoms, including low mood and anxiety69
  • Low libido in men and women70,71
  1. Ashwagandha

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

What does it do?

Ashwagandha is know for being an adaptogen, which means it contains a mix of amino acids and vitamins that can help us manage stress. 

Ashwagandha benefits

Where do we start? Ashwagandha has lots of potential benefits for our body, including helping to:

  • Support muscle growth73,74
  • Reduce blood sugar levels75,76
  • Lower cholesterol77
  • Reduce inflammation78
  • Improve memory and concentration79
  • Lower cortisol levels80
  1. Agnus castus

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)

What does it do?

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

Agnus castus benefits

Angnus castus is said to help:

  • Ease PMS symptoms like headaches, bloating and low mood83,84
  • Menopausal symptoms85,86
  1. Lemon balm

Lemon balm is closely related to mint and has little to do with lemons, actually! It just has a citrussy lemon-like scent.

What does it do?

Lemon balm is full of antioxidants like rosmarinic acid, which could be responsible for its health benefits.

Lemon balm benefits

Lemon balm has been found to have the following health benefits:

  • Helps cognitive and mental health87,88
  • Helps you sleep – when mixed with valerian root89
  • Promotes healthy digestion90
  1. Red clover

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

What does it do?

Red clover contains isoflavones – a naturally occurring plant oestrogen or phytoestrogen that is now often used to tackle hormonal issues, like menopausal symptoms.92

Red clover benefits

The isoflavones in red clover could help to mimic the effects of naturally produced oestrogen, which may help:

  • Relieve menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flushes93,94,95
  • Lower blood fat levels96
  • Improve bone density in menopausal women97
  1. Garcinia cambogia

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.

What does it do?

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 benefits

Garcinia cambogia may help:

  • Metabolise fats in the body99
  • Suppress appetite100
  1. Liquorice root

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.

What does it do?

It’s not fully understood how liquorice root works, but research suggests it could offer the below benefits.

Liquorice root benefits?

Liquorice root may help with:101

  • Digestion
  • Stomach health
  • Bacterial infections
  • Upper respiratory tract infections
  • Viral infections
  • Sore throats
  • Menopausal symptoms
  • Skin health
  • Dental health
  1. Garlic / Black garlic

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.

What does it do?

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.

Garlic benefits

According to the EU Herbal Medicines Agency, garlic can help:103

  • Prevent the hardening of arteries
  • Relieve common cold symptoms

Other popular herbal medicine products

  1. Chamomile: a flowering plant that may help promote sleep and relaxation104
  2. Sage: people have been burning sage for centuries as part of ceremonies and rituals
  3. Horny goat weed: the clue is in the name… benefits may include reduced erectile dysfunction, increased libido105,106
  4. Resveratrol: found in red wine, resveratrol may help support cardiovascular health, reduce oxidative stress and help with weight loss 107,108,109,110,111
  5. Feverfew: may help to prevent migraines112

Herbal medicine advice

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

  • People taking other medication
  • Those with serious health conditions, e.g. kidney disease
  • People who are going to have surgery
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Elderly people
  • Children

Always consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal medicines, as they may not be in your best interests.

The final say

  • As you can see, there are lots of herbal remedies out there that have been used for centuries to support people’s health
  • It’s up to you if you want to give them a go, but please be careful and make sure it is safe for you to do so
  • Always buy your herbal medicines from a reputable retailer – there are a lot of ‘dodgy’ products and companies out there, especially on the internet

Your guide to herbal tea

Your guide to herbal tea

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. 

Read more

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 11 August 2021



Author: Bhupesh PanchalSenior Regulatory Affairs Associate

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.

Read more
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