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Herbal medicine is the art and science of using plants to support health and wellness. Practiced since the beginning of time, herbal medicine has persisted as the world’s primary form of medicine with a written history dating back more than 5,000 years. According to the World Health Organization, large sections of the population in developing countries still rely on traditional practitioners and medicinal plants for their primary care. In American, 50 percent or more adults use herbal and dietary supplements on a regular basis, according to the National Institutes of Health.

People have used herbs for thousands of years, relying on powdered supplements, teas, tinctures, and skin creams to help treat everything from skin rashes to mild depression. Herbal supplements, also known as botanicals, are made from the leaves, flowers, roots, and bark of plants.

An herbalist is someone who uses plants for healing. These practitioners are not medical doctors, though some practitioners are also referred to as medical herbalists.

How is Herbal Medicine Different from Conventional Medicine?

Herbal medicine takes an integrated or holistic approach to explore all aspects of an individual—physical, spiritual, mental, emotional and lifestyle—and acknowledges the innate healing power of the human body. Herbal, diet, and lifestyle recommendations focus on supporting the specific needs of each individual.

Conventional medicine is a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals diagnose and treat symptoms and diseases. This system has many names including allopathic medicine, biomedicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine. It should not be confused with Traditional Medicine, which refers to healing practices and herbal support that have been used with a high level of safety and efficacy for thousands of years. Conventional medicine employs modern techniques that could not be accomplished by Traditional Medicine, such as surgery to correct a cleft palate. While drugs and surgical techniques do save lives, conventional medicine seems to have lost its “whole person” perspective with a quick diagnosis and immediate intervention with pharmaceuticals that do not address the underlying health conditions and come with adverse effects, that, in some instances, lead to the use of additional pharmaceuticals.

The best medicine incorporates all the knowledge and tools available and starts with allowing the body to gently rebalance itself through dietary changes, stress reduction techniques and herbal therapies, followed by the intervention of pharmaceutical drugs and surgery when necessary.

One of the founding principles of the AHG is to “promote cooperation between herbal practitioners and other health care providers, integrating herbalism into community health care.”

What Does an Herbalist Do?

Herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They may be native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters, herb farmers or even your grandmother or grandfather. Many have an intimate relationship with plants and their medicinal value. While herbalists approach their craft from various traditions, they share a common respect for all forms of life, especially the relationship between plants and humans. Herbalists apply traditional practices and evidence-based research of plants to support healthy function of the human body. A clinical herbalist is part of your wellness team, working collaboratively with you to support your health and wellness goals.

Herbalists attempt to find the root cause of illness. Practitioners will choose herbs based on the symptoms or ailments a patient describes during the consultation. They will also perform a clinical exam, inspecting certain areas of the body and create a personalized prescription. Patients may use just one herbal treatment or a combination of herbal supplements.

Common forms of treatment include:

  • Teas
  • Capsules containing liquids or powdered herbs
  • Bath salts
  • Oils
  • Skin creams and ointments

Education and Training

There isn’t one common training or certification program for herbalists, which makes their path different from a doctor who attends medical school. Some schools offer graduate-level programs in clinical herbal medicine, where students are encouraged to combine evidence-based science and traditional herbal medicine. 

Other organizations, like the American Herbalist Guild (AHG), offer memberships and certifications. The AHG requires 400 hours of training and clinical experience before practitioners can apply for the title of Registered Herbalist.

Herbalists study:

  • Human sciences, including anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Nutrition 
  • Pharmacy and dispensing 
  • Botany and plant science
  • Evidence-based botanical research

Herbalists may attend a school that specializes in holistic or alternative medicine. They may also choose to combine formal education with:

  • Clinical mentorships
  • Real-life experiences
  • Intensive self-study
  • Workshops, webinars, or conferences in their field of interest

Reasons to See an Herbalist

An herbalist shouldn’t replace a doctor or mental health professional, but may be a source of complementary treatment. Some people visit an herbalist for: want to visit an herbalist:

  • Non-medication treatments 
  • Advice on lifestyle habits to reduce pain or stress
  • Trouble sleeping


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers herbal supplements food and doesn’t have the same set of stringent regulations medication does. Botanicals aren’t subject to the same testing and manufacturing guidelines as prescription drugs. An herb might be advertised as “natural” or “organic,” but not all products are safe.

Here are some things to keep in mind when using herbal supplements:

  • Get your doctor’s OK before trying any herbal treatments. Many medications, treatments, and conditions do not mix well with herbs and supplements.
  • Do your research. Seek out a licensed herbalist. 
  • Read the label. Follow the instructions and don’t take more than the prescribed dosage. 
  • Be aware of any side effects. Nausea, dizziness, or stomach pain may be a sign your body isn’t responding well. 
  • Watch for allergic reactions. Call 911 if you have a severe allergic reaction or breathing problems.
  • Report any problems. The FDA tracks side effects of dietary supplements, and consumers can report adverse reactions or safety concerns.

Are you an Herbalist?

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