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Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health.

The two most common types used in the UK are Western and Chinese herbal medicine.

Herbal medicine aims to restore your body's ability to protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach that looks at your physical, mental and emotional well being. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phytotherapy 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 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 and lifestyle.

Western herbal therapies are usually made from herbs that grow in Europe and North America but also use herbs from China and India.

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

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is part of a whole system of medicine 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.

Chinese herbalists use plants according to how they affect a particular 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 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 is one of the most commonly 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 alongside conventional cancer treatments.

People have used herbal medicine for centuries to treat many different health conditions. It is often promoted as 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 and eczema.

As with most types of complementary or alternative therapy, some people might use it to help themselves feel better or more in control of their situation.

A 2014 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 to have some responsibility for their treatment. They also felt the therapies wouldn't cause side effects.

What using herbal medicine involves

During your first visit, the herbalist will ask you 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 might be:

  • a diluted alcohol solution of plant parts (tincture)
  • tablets or capsules
  • raw herbs that you boil in water to drink as a tea
  • a cream or ointment

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

Each type of herbal remedy might have its own 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 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.

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

Research into herbal medicine and cancer

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

Some 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 there are trials looking into this.

There is no substantial evidence that herbal remedies can prevent cancer.

One German study in 2009 reported that women who used black cohosh and phyto oestrogens for menopausal symptoms had a lower risk of cancer than those who didn't. But we need more studies to check this. Phyto oestrogens are plant substances that have an oestrogen like effect on the body. Soya beans and soya products contain phyto oestrogens.

There is some evidence that particular herbal remedies may help to prevent or relieve cancer symptoms or treatment side effects. But we need results from large clinical trials to show which herbs are safe to use alongside conventional cancer treatment.

In 2007, researchers in China looked into 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 Chinese herbal medicines to reduce side effects in people having chemotherapy for bowel cancer. From the limited information available, they found that a type of herbal remedy called Huangqi compounds seemed to help to reduce some of the side effects.

Participants who had Huangqi compounds alongside chemotherapy were less likely to feel sick, be sick, or have low white blood cell levels. There was some evidence that the herbal medicines stimulated immune system cells, but did not affect antibody levels in the blood. The reviewers could not find any sign of harm from the use of Huangqi medicines. They suggested that we need more research.

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 might improve quality of life, but said that the quality of the research was poor.

Some laboratory tests have found certain plants or plant extracts to have anti cancer. These have been made into cancer drugs such as Taxol from the yew tree.

But, there is no scientific evidence from human trials that herbal medicine can treat or 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.

In 2007 there was a review of trials that used Chinese herbal medicines to treat cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus). It found that none of the trials were of high quality and that there was no reliable evidence that the treatment worked.

The reviewers recommended doing large, high quality trials.

A review in 2012 looked at 24 trials that used Chinese herbal medicines alongside chemotherapy for people with advanced pancreatic cancer.

The reviewers found the herbal medicines seemed to help some people to live longer, have a better quality of life and reduce symptoms as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects.

But, the reviewers said that the benefit is not strong enough to support using herbal medicines to treat pancreatic cancer. 

In 2009 a review of 45 studies that used Chinese herbal medicines for a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma.

It found that having 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 so it is not really clear how much herbal medicines can help.

Using herbal medicines safely

Many people assume that just because a product is marketed as natural or herbal, it means that it is safe to use.

But while some herbal medicines are safe, others can have serious and dangerous side effects. And, they might interact with other cancer treatments you are having. We need to do more research into this.

A review published by the American Journal of Clinical Oncology found that common herbal remedies such as garlic, ginkgo, echinacea, ginseng, kava and St John’s wort, can interact with cancer treatments.

Some herbals treatments might affect the way drugs are broken down or carried around in your body. For example, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) suggests that St John’s wort can speed up how quickly your body gets rid of the anti cancer treatment, imatinib (Glivec). This means it could make the imatinib less effective at fighting your cancer.

Some herbal medicines might increase the effect of cancer drugs, meaning that you could be over treated.

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

Some herbal remedies make your skin more sensitive to light, so we don’t recommend that you take them while having radiotherapy.

Before you have herbal medicines

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.

In Europe it is important to buy only 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.

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

Some have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs which might not be listed 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 who is trained to work out which 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 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)

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.

Finding a herbal therapist

In the UK, TCM and other herbal practitioners are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. Contact them for a list of registered practitioners in your area. Most practitioners will also be registered with one of the herbal medicine organisations listed below.

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
GL20 5TY

Tel: 01684 291605

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

Tel: 0845 680 1134

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
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

151 Buckingham Palace Road

Telephone: 020 3080 6000

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: 
02 Feb 2015
  • Herbal remedies in the United States: potential adverse interactions with anticancer agents.
    A Sparreboom and others, 2004
    Journal of Clinical Oncology, Volume 22, Issue 12

  • Oral Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) as an adjuvant treatment during chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer: a systematic review
    S Chen and others,2010.
    Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE): Quality-assessed Reviews

  • Traditional Chinese medicines in the treatment of hepatocellular cancers: a systematic review and meta-analysis
    Ping Wu and others, 2009
    Journal of Experimental & Clinical Cancer Research

  • Chinese herbal medicines for esophageal cancer.
    X Wei and others, 2009
    Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews

  • Herbal medicines for advanced colorectal cancer.
    Z Guo and others, 2012
    Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews.

  • 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 with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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