Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health. It aims to restore your body’s ability to protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole-body approach, so looks at your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phototherapy, or botanical medicine.

Many modern drugs are made from plants. But herbalists don’t extract plant substances in the way the drug industry does. Herbalists believe that the remedy works due to the delicate chemical balance of the whole plant, or mixtures of plants, not one particular active ingredient.

The two most common types of herbal medicine used are Western Herbal Medicine and Chinese Herbal Medicine; some herbalists practice less common types of Herbal Medicine such as Tibetan or Ayurvedic Medicine (Indian).

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Western Herbal Medicine


Western Herbal Medicine, also known as Herbalism or Botanical Medicine, is a medical system based on the use of plants or plant extracts that may either be applied to the skin or eaten, and focuses on the whole person rather than their illness.

Western Herbalism dates back to ancient Egypt, where records of garlic and juniper used for medicinal purposes were found from as early as 1700 B.C.

By 100 B.C., the Greeks had developed a comprehensive philosophy of herbal medicine that related different herbs to different temperaments, seasons and elements such as earth, air, fire and water.

The Romans took the Greek theories of medicine and added to them, creating a wealth of medical practices, some of which are still used today.

Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants, or plant parts, to help your body heal itself or reduce the side effects of medical treatments.

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Chinese Herbal Medicine/TCM

Chinese Herbal Medicine is part of a whole system of medicine called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).


TCM aims to bring the body back in balance by restoring the balance of your Qi (pronounced chee) “life energy,” so that the body can heal itself.

Practitioners believe that Qi is the flow of energy in your body, and is essential for good health.

Chinese herbalists use herbs for therapeutic purposes according to their taste and how they affect a particular part of the body or an energy channel in the body; many of which are used in conventional medicine as well as for natural remedies. They may use a mixture of plants and other substances.

The Chinese remedy reference book used by TCM practitioners contains hundreds of medicinal substances. Most of the substances are plants but there are also some minerals and animal products. Practitioners may use different parts of plants such as the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds. Usually, herbs are combined and you take them as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.

(TCM) includes

  • Herbal Remedies
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage Therapy
  • Traditional Breathing & Movement Exercises called Qi Gong (pronounced Chee Goong)
  • Movement Exercises called Tai Chi (pronounced Tie Chee)

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine often use herbal remedies along with other therapies, such as acupuncture, massage and tai chi.

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A History of the Medical Use of Herbal Medicine/TCM

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years.

The first theoretical medical classic, the Internal Classic of Yellow Emperor, written about 2500 years ago, postulates that the human body is built upon two opposing aspects, the yin and the yang, which are interdependent and interrelated; it instructs doctors to focus their attention, in addition to their skill, primarily on the prevention of disease, instead of focussing on treatment after the onset of disease.


The use of moxibustion or acupuncture to manipulate the Yin and Yang are described in ways similar to that practiced nowadays.
Around 281-341 AD, the well-known physician and alchemist of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Ge Hong, made prominent contributions to the knowledge of infectious disease.

In his famous medical book entitled Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatment, Ge Hong proposed some valuable opinions and concrete methods based on the archaic concept of “like cures like” or “poison attacked by poison“, might be considered as the beginning or birth of the primitive concept of immunity.

This concept was so highly developed that it eventually led to the invention of variolation with a humanpox vaccine and is the predecessor of the cowpox vaccination.

A book entitled Washing Away the Wrong Cases (xi yuan lu), compiled by Song Ci of the Song Dynasty in 1247, described the examination of the corpse, identification and analysis of death caused by mechanical wounds, causes of poisoning and antitoxicity, and on-the-spot examination of criminal cases. This work is recognized by medical professionals as the first monograph on legal medicine.

The Compendium of Materia Medica (CMM) is a pharmaceutical text written by Li Shizhen in 1593, during the Ming Dynasty of China. While only a few dozen of drugs were first described, this had grown close to 1,900 by the end of the 16th century, and by the end of the last century, published records of CMM have reached 12,800 herbal drugs. These herbal drugs are divided into 16 categories: water, fire, earth, metal and stone, grass, cereal, vegetable, fruit, wood, utensil, worm, scale, shell, bird, beast and man.

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Herbal Medicine/TCM as a Complementary Therapy

Herbal medicine has been used for centuries to treat many different health conditions. As with most types of complementary or alternative therapies, individuals may use it to help themselves feel better or feel more in control of their situation.

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Herbal medicine is often promoted as a natural way to help you relax and cope with anxiety, depression and other conditions such as hay fever, irritable bowel syndrome, menstrual (period) problems and skin conditions such as eczema.

Herbal medicine is one of the most commonly used complementary and alternative therapies (CAM) by people with cancer (up to 60% of 10 people with cancer use herbal remedies alongside conventional cancer treatments).

While many pharmaceutical companies use the active ingredients found in herbs in their products, herbalists believe in something called “herbal synergy,” which means that in order for the herb to be as safe and effective as possible, it is important to use the whole plant instead of extracting only the active ingredients. For instance, meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. While aspirin alone often causes issues in people who have sensitive stomachs, meadowsweet also contains tannin and mucilage, which work to protect the stomach from the salicylic acid.

The basic principles of TCM are rather distinctive:

Relative Properties – Yin and Yang – The Physiology of Chinese medicine holds that the human body’s life is the result of the balance of yin and yang. Yin is the inner and negative principles, and yang, outer and positive. The key reason why there is sickness is because the two aspects lose their harmony. Seen from the recovery mechanism of organs, yang functions to protect from outer harm, and yin is the inner base to store and provide energy for its counterpart.

Basic Substance – Doctors of traditional Chinese medicine (abbreviated to TCM) believe that vital energy – moving and energetic particles, state of blood, and body fluid are the essential substances that compose together to form the human body, and the basis for internal organs to process. They are channeled along a network within the body – Jing Luo as their channels. On the physical side, vital energy serving to promote and warm belongs to the properties of yang, and blood and body fluid to moisten possesses the properties of yin.

Some research suggests that herbal medicines as well as other TCM methods, such as acupuncture, tai chi and massage, may help people cope with the physical and emotional side effects of conventional cancer treatments

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There is currently no strong evidence from studies in people that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure cancer. Some randomised clinical trials seem to show that some Chinese herbs may help people to live longer, reduce side effects, and help to prevent cancer coming back, especially when combined with conventional treatment.

One review in 2005 looked at the studies of Chinese herbal medicines used to reduce side effects in people having chemotherapy for bowel cancer. The reviewers found 4 relevant studies that included a total of 342 patients. They found that from the limited information available, a type of herbal remedy called Huangqi compounds seemed to help to reduce some of the side effects. Patients who had Huangqi compounds alongside their chemotherapy were less likely to feel sick or be sick or have low white blood cell levels. There was some evidence to suggest that the herbal medicines also stimulated cells of the immune system but they did not affect levels of antibodies in the blood. Reviewers suggested that more research is needed.

In 2010 reviewers looked at 15 trials that used Chinese herbal medicine for people with small cell lung cancer. They found that taking Chinese herbal medicine during chemotherapy may improve people’s quality of life but said that the quality of the research was poor. You can read the review of Chinese herbal medicine for people with lung cancer on the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE) website.

One study reported in early 2014 looked at the behaviour, beliefs, knowledge, information sources and needs of people with cancer who take herbal medicines in the UK. The study found that people with cancer mostly took herbal medicines to take back some control and responsibility for themselves and their disease.

Several reviews by the Cochrane Library are currently looking at using herbal medicines to treat symptoms or side effects of lung cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and stomach cancer.

Some plants or plant extracts have been found in laboratory tests to have anti-cancer effects and have been turned into cancer drugs (such as Taxol from the yew tree), but there is no scientific evidence from patient trials that herbal medicine can cure cancer.

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How is Herbal Medicine/TCM Administered?

Herbal Medicine involves a diagnosis which is made via the herbalist asking you some general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet and medical history. They will also do a physical examination, which may include

  • Feeling your pulse
  • Taking your blood pressure
  • Examining your skin and nails
  • Feeling your abdomen
  • Looking at your tongue
  • Looking at your eyes

Once the herbalist has made a diagnosis, he or she will decide which remedies you need and will generally make them up while you wait.

TCM practitioners use four methods of diagnosis

  1. Observation indicates that doctors directly watch the outward appearance to know a patient’s condition. As the exterior and interior corresponds immediately, when the inner organs run wrongly, it will be reflected through skin pallor, tongue, the facial sensory organs and some excrement.
  2. Auscultation & Olfaction is a way for doctors to collect messages through hearing the sound and smelling the odour. This is another reference for diagnosis.
  3. Interrogation suggests that doctors question the patient and his relatives, so as to know the symptoms, evolution of the disease and previous treatments.
  4. Pulse Taking & Palpation The taking of the pulse and palpation refer that doctors noting the pulse condition of patients on the radial artery, and then to know the inner change of symptom. Doctors believe that when the organic function is normal, the pulse, frequency, and intension of pulse will be relatively stable, and when not, variant.

There are many different types of herbal medicine with roots in many different traditions.

Decoctions are made by boiling barks, roots and berries to extract the active ingredients. The liquid is strained and can be taken either hot or cold.


Tinctures are made by soaking herbs in water and alcohol to extract and preserve the active ingredients. The liquid is then stored in small bottles and taken with water.

Infusions are made like teas. Boiling water is poured over the herb and is left to sit for about 10 minutes, creating a liquid to be taken as a hot drink or medicine.

Infused Oils are made with chopped herbs and oil. The mixture is either placed in a bowl over boiling water, or left to infuse in the sunlight.

Creams are made from herbs and either oil or fat. The mixture simmers for about three hours before it is strained and set in dark bottles.

Ointments are also made from herbs combined with either oil or fat. The ointment is then heated quickly over boiling water before it is strained and set.

Herbalism is designed to use herbs to treat the underlying causes of disease in a client. Instead of looking at the signs and symptoms and then treating the disease, herbalists look at the whole picture, from lifestyle to physical stressor, in order to prescribe the right treatment.

Once the cause of a condition is discovered, the herb is prescribed to restore the body’s natural balance. Herbalism is “understanding how different herbs work with the body to restore balance and health.”

Some Commonly Used Herbs

Echinacea – often used in tinctures or powders to reduce symptoms of the common cold and flu. It is also used for infections, particularly those of the kidney.


Garlic – used to reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as for treating infections. It can be taken fresh, as a powder, as oil or as a juice.

Ginger – commonly used to reduce nausea, to reduce symptoms of colds and chills through sweating and to boost circulation. It can be taken fresh, dried, or as oil.

Gingko – most commonly used to improve memory. Gingko improves circulation, particularly to the brain, though it is also used to regulate irregular heartbeats and to reduce symptoms of dementia. It is usually taken as a tincture or an infusion.

Ginseng – used to boost the immune system and decrease fatigue. It is also used for lungs conditions such as coughs, and to reduce blood pressure. The root is taken as a powder, tincture, or decoction.

St. John’s Wort – used as an anti-depressant, for anxiety, irritability and exhaustion. It can also be used topically for burns and inflammations. St. John’s Wort is usually taken as an infusion, tincture or cream.

Lavender – popular as aromatic oil, and can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments from exhaustion to headaches, and indigestion to depression. It is commonly taken as an infusion, tincture, mouthwash, cream, lotion, massage oil, chest rub, hair rinse or oil.

Chamomile – a popular herb used for indigestion, stress relief, anxiety, and insomnia. It is also used for asthma and bronchitis. It can be taken as an infusion, tincture, ointment, inhalation or mouthwash.

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Side Effects or Risks

Many individuals assume that because a product is marketed as natural or herbal, this means it’s safe to use. Some herbal medicines are safe but others can have serious and dangerous side effects

Each type of herbal remedy may have its own side effects; some are safe to use and don’t have any noticeable side effects, but some plants are poisonous to humans and can have serious and severe side effects.  Always tell your doctor if you are using any type of herbal remedy.

Some herbal medicines may interact with treatments from your doctor, including cancer drugs or radiotherapy. A review published by the American Journal of Clinical Oncology found that some common herbal remedies, such as garlic, ginkgo, echinacea, ginseng, kava and St John’s wort, can interact with cancer treatments.

Side effects of traditional Chinese herbal remedies will depend on the herbs and the combination of herbs in the preparation. There have been cases of traditional Chinese herbal remedies containing prescription drugs that weren’t listed on the label, which could cause serious side effects. Other herbs used in TCM have been found to be contaminated with toxic metals such as lead, mercury or arsenic. Some traditional Chinese herbal remedies may interact with other herbs or over-the-counter drugs, which could be dangerous to your health.

Some herbal treatments may affect the way drugs are broken down by your body, or the way drugs are carried around your body:

  • The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) suggests that St John’s Wort, a natural remedy for depression, can speed up the time that your body takes to get rid of the anti-cancer treatment, imatinib (Glivec) by 44%. This could potentially mean that the treatment is less effective at fighting your cancer. Some herbal medicines may increase the effect of cancer drugs, meaning that you could be over treated;
  • Asian Ginseng & Bilberry can interfere with some drugs and may increase the risk of bleeding after surgery. Some herbs can make your skin more sensitive to light and you should not take them during a course of radiotherapy;
  • Ginseng & Liquorice Root affect heart rate and blood pressure and could cause problems if taken before surgery;
  • Dong Quai, Feverfew, Supplemental Garlic, Ginger and other herbs that thin the blood could cause problems if taken before surgery; and
  • Kava & Valerian and other sedative herbs may increase the effects of anaesthesia.

It is best to stop taking any of these herbs at least 10-14 days before surgery, and be sure to tell your physician that you’ve been taking them. We need more research into how herbal treatments interact with cancer treatments.

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about taking any traditional Chinese herbal remedies. Let your TCM practitioner know about your cancer diagnosis and any conventional cancer treatments you are having.

For More Information:

To find out about the side effects of individual herbal remedies, and possible interactions with other drugs, look on the American Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre website about herbs, botanicals and other products.

You will also find clinical summaries about many different types of herbs and plant remedies on the UK CAM-CANCER website


Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.