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Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health. There is not enough reliable scientific evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer.

Summary

  • Herbal medicine uses plants or plant extracts to treat illness and promote health
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to use it as a cancer treatment
  • Herbal medicines might have side effects and interact with other medicines
  • Herbal medicines may not be regulated if made outside the UK, and what they contain can vary. If you are going to buy herbal remedies it is safest to buy them from a fully qualified herbal practitioner.

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicines are made from plants. They use combinations of plant parts, for example leaves, flowers or roots. Each part of the plant can have a different medicinal use. Manufacturers use different ways of extracting the chemicals from the plant parts. They use fresh and dried plants to make the medicine.

Herbal medicine aims to restore your body, so that it can protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach. It looks at your physical, mental and emotional well being. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phytotherapy or botanical medicine.

Manufacturers make many drugs 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. And not from one active ingredient.

The two most common types of herbal medicine used in the UK are Western and Chinese herbal medicine. Less common types include Tibetan or Ayurvedic medicine (Indian).

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
  • lifestyle

Western herbal therapists usually make medicines from European and North American herbs. They also use herbs from China and India.

Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants or plant parts. They believe it helps your body to heal itself or to reduce the side effects of medical treatments.

Chinese herbal medicine

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

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.

Yin and yang refer to different qualities of Qi. When all of the yin and yang aspects of Qi are in harmony with one another, there is health, wellbeing and peace. Illness is due to a disturbance of the balance between yin and yang. Chinese herbalists use plants according to how they affect a part of the body or energy channel.

TCM includes:

  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy
  • herbal remedies
  • traditional breathing and movement exercises called qi gong (pronounced chee goong)
  • movement exercises called tai chi (pronounced tie chee)

TCM uses hundreds of medicinal substances. Most of these are plants, but there are also some minerals and animal products.

Practitioners may use different parts of plants. They might use the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds. Usually, they combine herbs and you take them as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.

Why people with cancer use it

Herbal medicine is one of the most used complementary and alternative therapies by people with cancer. Some studies have shown that as many as 6 out of every 10 people with cancer (60%) use herbal remedies. This is alongside conventional cancer treatments.

People have used herbal medicine for centuries to treat many different health conditions. They believe it is a natural way to help you relax and cope with anxiety and depression. Or, to help with other conditions such as:

  • hay fever
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • menstrual (period) problems
  • eczema

People might also use herbal medicine to help themselves to feel better or more in control of their situation.

A 2011 study in the UK surveyed people with cancer who use herbal medicines. It found that most of the people used herbal medicines to feel more in control. And that it helped them to feel that they have some responsibility for their treatment. They also felt the therapies wouldn't cause side effects.

How you have it

During your first visit, the herbalist will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet and medical history.

During your first visit, the herbalist will:

  • take your full history
  • ask about your family’s medical history
  • discuss your diet and lifestyle
  • find out about any medication or supplements you use

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 might be:

  • a diluted alcohol solution of plant parts (tincture)
  • powders made into tablets or capsules
  • water-based solutions like a tea that you make from raw herbs
  • a cream or ointment
  • oil-based solutions like a cream or ointment

Your herbalist may suggest that you go back for another appointment after a few weeks. How long you continue seeing them will depend on why you are using herbal medicine.

Who shouldn’t use herbal medicine

This depends on which herbal medicine you want to have.

It is important to check with your doctor first before taking any herbal remedies if you:

  • have any medical condition, including cancer
  • are having radiotherapy
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • are due to have surgery in the next few weeks
  • are having other cancer treatment (conventional, complementary or alternative)

Using herbal medicines safely

Many people assume that products are safe to use when marketed as natural or herbal.

Some herbal medicines might be safe. But others can have severe and dangerous side effects. And, they might interact with other cancer treatments you are having. We need more research into this.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in America looked at how herbal medicines can change the way other drugs work. They suggest that the following herbal remedies can interact with cancer treatments:

  • ginkgo
  • kava kava
  • grapefruit
  • St John’s wort

Some herbal treatments might affect the way your body processes cancer drugs. For example the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in America says that St John’s wort can cause your body to get rid of the drug, imatinib (Glivec), quicker. This means it could make the imatinib less effective at fighting your cancer.

Some herbal medicines might increase the effect of cancer drugs. This means that you could have too much treatment.

Other herbal medicines can interfere with some drugs. For example, Asian ginseng and bilberry can increase the risk of bleeding after surgery.

Some herbal remedies make your skin more sensitive to light. Do not take them while having radiotherapy.

Finding a herbal therapist

In the UK, the Health and Care Professions Council regulates TCM. It also regulates other herbal practitioners. Contact them for a list of registered practitioners in your area. Most practitioners are members of the herbal medicine organisations listed below.

Side effects

Each type of herbal remedy might have side effects. Some are safe to use and do not 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. It might be helpful 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, your doctor or herbalist can report side effects. You report it to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The MHRA is the UK regulatory body. It collects information about the side effects of drugs, including herbal medicines.

Let both your herbalist and doctor know if you feel worse or ill while you are taking herbal medicine.

Research into herbal medicine for cancer

There is no reliable evidence from human studies that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure any type of cancer.

Some clinical trials seem to show that certain Chinese herbs may help people to live longer, might reduce side effects, and help to prevent cancer from coming back. This is 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 give enough detail on how the researchers did the studies.

It is difficult to know how reliable the research is and which herbs may be helpful. But there are trials looking into this.

How much it costs

Your first consultation with a herbalist will usually cost more than further appointments. Follow up appointments are generally shorter. So, are likely to cost less.

You will also have to pay for the herbs your herbalist prescribes. These costs may vary from place to place in the UK.

A word of caution

Herbal products in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards. They also need to provide information about their product. This includes the specific content and dose of the product and how safe it is.

In Europe, always buy products registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products in the UK. They say that how manufacturers make unlicensed traditional Chinese medicines can vary.

Some have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs. The manufacturers have not listed this on the packaging of the product. The amount of the active ingredient can also vary widely between products.

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

It is understandable that you might want to try anything if you think it might help treat or cure your cancer. Only you can decide whether to use an alternative cancer therapy such as herbal medicine.

You could harm your health if you stop your cancer treatment for an unproven treatment.

Some websites might promote herbal medicine as part of treatment for cancer. But no reputable scientific cancer organisations support any of these claims.

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Herbal medicine organisations

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

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 set of practice and training standards for herbal medicine.

25 Lincoln Close
Tewkesbury
Gloucestershire
GL20 5TY

Tel: 01684 291605
Email: info@ehpa.eu

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

PO Box 583
Exeter
Devon
EX1 9GX

Tel: 0845 680 1134
Email: secretary@bhma.info

An independent, UK health regulator that keeps a register of qualified therapists. It sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, art therapists and drama therapists.

184 Kennington Park Road
London
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

151 Buckingham Palace Road
London
SW1W 9SZ

Telephone: 020 3080 6000
Email: info@mhra.gsi.gov.uk

The MHRA regulates medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion in the UK. This includes herbal products.

They have information about:

  • the safety of herbal medicines including what consumers need to know
  • advice and guidance about taking specific herbs
  • which Ayurvedic medicines might contain harmful substances
Last reviewed: 
06 Jun 2019
  • Traditional Chinese medicine as a cancer treatment: Modern perspectives of ancient but advanced science

    X Yuening and others

    Cancer Medicine, 2019 p.1-18

  • Conventional Western Treatment Associated With Chinese Herbal Medicine Ameliorates the Incidence of Head and Neck Cancer Among Patients With Esophageal Cancer

    C Chia-Chen and others

    Integrated Cancer Therapy. 2019; 18: 1534735419834353.

  • Moxibustion for alleviating side effects of chemotherapy or radiotherapy in people with cancer

    H Zhang and others

    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD010559.

  • Chinese Medicines Improve Perimenopausal Symptoms Induced by Surgery, Chemoradiotherapy, or Endocrine Treatment for Breast Cancer

    W Shuo and others

    Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2019; 10: 174.

  • Chang-wei-qing, a Chinese herbal formula, ameliorates colitis-associated tumour development via inhibiting NF-κB and STAT3 signalling pathway

    G Wan and others

    Pharmaceutical Biology. 2019 December; 57(1): 231-237.

  • Chinese Herbal Medicine Effectively Prolongs the Overall Survival of Pancreatic Cancer Patients: A Case Series

    W Wong and others

    Integrated Cancer Therapy. 2019; 18: 1534735419828836.

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.
     

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