Introduction to Herbal Medicine

Herbal Medicine is also know as Herbalism or Botanical Medicine.  It involves the use of natural plant products for  treatment.  Certain treatment herbs, or a plants which fight disease, contain chemicals with curative properties.

Herbal medicine is perhaps the oldest form of healthcare. Herbs were used by virtually every primitive culture. Successful herbal treatments have become the basis for many modern medicines.  Examples include aspirin and all of the non-steroidals, most of the hormones, some of the heart medicines, and many of our pain killers.

The World Health Organization estimates that 4 billion people, or 80 percent of the world’s population, use herbal medicine as their primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component Ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional Asian, and Native American medicine. The World Health Organization lists 119 common plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines. 

One example of an herbal preparation used in modern medicine is the foxglove plant. This herb was first used in about 1775. It was found to treat heart failure.  Originally the leaf of this plant was crushed and rolled into pills.  Even now, synthetic forms of the same chemicals in that leaf are the basis of some of the commonest heart drugs.  The modern name of the drug is digitalis or digoxin.


In the United States herbs are unregulated and can be sold over the counter as dietary supplements. The General Accounting Office estimated that consumers spend about $31 billion a year for dietary supplements. 

“Natural” Doesn’t Always Mean Safe

Like prescription medicines, herbs can have benefits. They are, however, strong drugs and can have serious side effects.  Since they are not regulated, their manufacturers are not required to disclose their risks.  Even "good herbs" can be unsafe if used under the wrong conditions. They frequently interact with prescription medicines.  For instance, some herbs interact with some of the anesthesia medications.  If used before a surgery, the patient can suffer heart damage, stroke or even die.

Ask Your Doctor Before Using Herbs

Checking with your doctor before taking a supplement is a good idea. If you are pregnant, nursing a baby or have a chronic medical condition (such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease) this is especially important.

Safety Tips

  • Do not take larger than recommended doses of herbs.
  • Elderly people should not take herbs without the approval of a doctor. It is a good idea for everyone to check with their health care provider before taking dietary supplements.
  • Avoid long term use of herbs (more than several weeks).
  • Take time to study about your supplements so you know about them and can avoid problems.
  • If something sounds to good to be true, it probably is not
Adverse effects from using dietary supplements should be reported to MedWatch (the program for reporting problems with FDA-regulated products).  Call 1-800-FDA-1088, or Fax: 1-800-FDA-0178, or go to their web site,

Possible Side Effects and Interactions


Possible Risk of Increased Bleeding
(Especially with Surgery)

Dong Quai
Fish Oil
St. John’s Wort
Vitamin E
May Worsen Swelling (Edema) and/or High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
Interacts with Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers including aspirin, Advil®, Motrin® and Aleve®)
St. John’s Wort


Spake A. Natural hazards. Tonic or toxic? Americans are gobbling up nature’s remedies for everything from obesity to depression. US News and World Report. 2001;130(6):42-49.

Flanagan K. Preoperative assessment: safety considerations for patients taking herbal products. Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing. 2001;16(1):19-26.

Bullock K. Alternative therapies: helping patients find their way. Focus on Patient Safety. 1999;2(2):1-2.

Eisenberg DM, Davis RB, Ettner SL, et al. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997. Results of a follow-up national survey. JAMA. 1998;280:1569-2575.

US Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. Dietary supplements. Tips for the savvy supplement user: making informed decisions and evaluating information. January 2002. Available at: Accessed February 27, 2002.

Ang-Lee MK, Moss J, Yuan C-S. Herbal medicines and perioperative care. JAMA. 2001;286:208-216.

North American Spine Society. Natural doesn’t always mean safe. Spine care provider’s guide to herbal supplements. LaGrange, IL: North American Spine Society; 2002.

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Go to the next chapter on history and ethics.







The information in this site briefly describes issues related to medical treatments, and has been licensed by from Northern California Neurosurgery Medical Group, Inc., who is solely responsible for said content.  This web site is not a substitute for good medical care or for a consultation with a spine specialist. It should not be used to plan your treatment. The well considered advice of a specialist who has personally examined you is always superior to even the best internet pages.

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Last modified: 07/31/08