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What herbal medicine is

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, phytotherapy or botanical medicine.

The two most common types of herbal medicine used in the UK are Western herbal medicine and Chinese herbal medicine. Some herbalists practice less common types of herbal medicine such as Tibetan or Ayurvedic medicine (Indian).

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.

Western herbal medicine

Western herbal medicine focuses on the whole person rather than their illness. So the herbalist looks at your personal health history, family history, diet and lifestyle. Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants, or plant parts, to help your body heal itself or reduce the side effects of medical treatments. Western herbal therapies are usually made from herbs that grow in Europe and North America but also use herbs from China and India.

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is part of a whole system of medicine called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which includes

  • Herbal remedies
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Traditional breathing and movement exercises called qi gong (pronounced chee goong)
  • Movement exercises called tai chi (pronounced tie chee)

TCM aims to restore the balance of your Qi (pronounced chee). TCM practitioners believe that Qi is the flow of energy in your body, and is essential for good health. Chinese herbalists use plants according to their taste and how they affect a particular part of the body or an energy channel in the body. 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.


Why people with cancer use herbal medicine

Herbal medicine has been used for centuries to treat many different health conditions. As with most types of complementary or alternative therapy, people may use it to help themselves feel better or feel more in control of their situation. 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. Some studies have shown that as many as 6 out of every 10 people with cancer (60%) use herbal remedies alongside conventional cancer treatments. There are many different types of herbal medicines and some of them overlap with foods. Commonly used plants include echinacea, St John’s wort, green tea and ginger.

One study reported in early 2014. It looked at the behaviour, beliefs, knowledge, information sources and needs of people with cancer who take herbal medicines in the UK. The study involved looking at all the research so far, creating a questionnaire and then doing a survey of patients. It found that people with cancer mostly took herbal medicines to take back some control and responsibility for themselves and their disease. They also thought that the therapies would not cause side effects.

You can find detailed information about other results from the beliefs about herbal medicines study on our clinical trials database.


What using herbal medicine involves

At your first visit, the herbalist will ask 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

The herbalist will then decide which remedies you need. They will usually make it while you wait. The remedy may be

  • A tincture (a diluted alcohol solution of plant parts)
  • Tablets or capsules
  • Raw herbs that you take home and boil in water to drink as a tea
  • A cream or ointment for skin problems

Your herbalist is likely to recommend that you go back for another appointment about 2 to 4 weeks later. How long you continue seeing them will depend on why you are using herbal medicine.


Possible side effects of herbal medicines

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. If you feel worse or ill while you are taking herbal medicine, let your herbalist know as well as your doctor. It can also help to ask your herbalist for a list of all the ingredients in your herbal remedy. Then if you do have any side effects, your doctor will know what you have taken. You, or your doctor or herbalist can report the side effect to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The MHRA is the UK regulatory body that collects information about the side effects of drugs, including herbal medicines. 

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


Research into herbal medicine and cancer

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. But many of the studies are published in Chinese, and some of them don't list the specific herbs used. Some journal articles don't describe in enough detail how the studies were done. 

It is difficult to know how reliable the research is and which herbs may be helpful. But trials are looking into this. This section has information about the current evidence for herbal medicine.

Research into preventing cancer

There is no substantial evidence that herbal remedies can prevent cancer. But one German study reported in 2009  that women who used phyto oestrogens and black cohosh for menopausal symptoms had a lower risk of cancer than those who didn't. We need more studies to check this.

Research into relieving symptoms or side effects

There is some evidence that particular herbal remedies may help to prevent or relieve the symptoms of cancer or treatment side effects.

Researchers in China in October 2007 looked at a range of studies of herbal medicine for many medical conditions, including chemotherapy side effects. They found that some standard herbal medicines could be helpful, but remedies made up specifically for individual patients were not helpful.

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. The reviewers could not find any sign of harm from the use of Huangqi medicines. They 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.

We need results from large clinical trials to show which herbs can help people with cancer and which herbs are safe to use alongside conventional cancer treatment. 

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.

Research into treating 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. We need to run large trials to find out whether some herbal products have anti cancer properties. Examples of herbal remedies that people have claimed can help to treat cancer are carctol and chaparral. But there is no evidence to support these claims. 


Research into herbal medicines for specific cancers

Some studies have looked at herbal medicines for particular types of cancer.

Herbal medicines for cancer of the food pipe

A review of trials using Chinese herbal medicines to treat cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus) reported in 2007. It found no high quality trials and said that there is currently no reliable evidence that Chinese herbal medicines can help to treat cancer of the food pipe. The reviewers recommend that large, high quality trials are carried out. You can read the review of Chinese herbal medicines for oesophageal cancer on the Cochrane Library website. 

Herbal medicines for pancreatic cancer

Chinese herbal medicine has been used to treat pancreatic cancer, especially in advanced cancer. A review in 2012 looked at 24 trials that used herbal medicines alongside chemotherapy for people with advanced pancreatic cancer. The reviewers found that the herbal medicines seemed to help some people to live longer, reduce chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects, have a better quality of life, and reduce symptoms. The reviewers say though that the benefit is not strong enough to support the use of herbal medicines in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. You can read the review of Chinese herbal medicines for pancreatic cancer on the CAM-CANCER website.

Herbal medicines and liver cancer

In 2009 a review looked at 45 studies that used Chinese herbal medicines for a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma. It found that giving Chinese herbal medicine seemed to slow the growth of cancer and help some people to live longer. It also seemed to reduce abdominal pain, tiredness (fatigue) and to boost appetite. But the studies were poor quality and so it is not really clear how much herbal medicines can help. You can read the review of Chinese herbal medicines for liver cancer on the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE) website.


Information about specific herbal therapies

You can find information about research into the use of specific herbal medicines in cancer care in our sections about

You can find clinical summaries about many different types of herbs and plant remedies on the UK CAM-CANCER website and the American Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre website About herbs, botanicals and other products.


Safety of herbal medicines

Many people 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

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. You can look at the Memorial Sloan Kettering website for information about herbal products you should avoid taking during cancer treatment.

Some herbal treatments may affect the way drugs are broken down by your body, or the way drugs are carried around your body. For example, information published by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) suggests that St John’s wort 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.

Other examples include Asian ginseng and bilberry – they 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. We need more research into how herbal treatments interact with cancer treatments.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products in the UK. You can find information on its website about  

The Medicines and Healthcare regulatory Agency (MHRA) states that there is a big variation in how unlicensed traditional Chinese medicines are made. Some have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs. These substances may not be listed on the packaging of the product. The amount of the active ingredient can also vary widely between products.

Quality standards for herbal products

Companies making herbal products bought over the counter in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards. They also need to provide information about their product, including the exact content and dose of the product and how safe it is. It is important to use only herbal products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety. 

It is safest to buy plant remedies from a fully qualified herbal practitioner who is trained to work out which herbal medicines are appropriate for you. They can also trace where their herbs and plants come from.


Who shouldn’t use herbal medicine

This depends on which herbal medicine you want to take. It is important to check with your doctor before taking any herbal remedies if you

  • Have any medical condition, including cancer
  • Are taking other medicines (conventional, complementary or alternative)
  • Are having radiotherapy
  • Are pregnant or breast feeding
  • Are due to have surgery in the next few weeks

Finding a herbal therapist

Currently in the UK, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and herbal medicine practitioners are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. They can give you details of registered practitioners in your area. Most practitioners will also be registered with one of the herbal medicine organisations listed below.

You can 

  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they've had and how long they've been practicing
  • Ask them if they have treated cancer patients before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

The cost of herbal medicine

Your first consultation with a herbalist will usually cost between £40 and £80 for an hour. Further appointments are usually shorter so are likely to cost less, perhaps around £30. You will also have to pay for the herbs you are prescribed. These costs vary from place to place within the UK.


Herbal medicine organisations

You can get further information about herbal medicines from the following organisations.

European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA)
25 Lincoln Close
GL20 5TY
Tel: 01684 291605
Email: info@ehpa.eu
Website: www.ehpa.eu/index.html

The EHTPA covers a group of organisations representing Ayurveda, Chinese Herbal Medicine, Traditional Tibetan Medicine and Western Herbal Medicine within Europe. They are working together to develop a minimum set of practice and training standards for herbal medicine. 

British Herbal Medicine Association (BHMA)
PO Box 583
Tel: 0845 680 1134
Email: secretary@bhma.info
Website: www.bhma.info

The BHMA aims to protect herbal medicine users, practitioners and manufacturers. It has an information service and can refer to locally qualified herbal practitioners.

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
184 Kennington Park Road
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0845 300 6184

Website: www.hpc-uk.org

An independent, UK health regulator. Sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, herbal therapists and drama therapists. Can give you names of qualified therapists in your area.

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Updated: 2 February 2015