What is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine, also referred to as Botanical Medicine, Phytomedicine or Phytotherapeutics, is the use of plants for medicinal purposes.  Herbalists may use the whole plant, aerial parts of the plant, roots, berries, leaves or flowers.  Herbalists refer to plants providing some sort of action within the body.


Although more research is required to understand exactly how herbal medicine works, researchers are studying plant medicines and tend to describe these actions according to the plant chemicals or phytochemicals (phyto means plant) thought to trigger the action.  Not all research is conclusive but a number of studies have confirmed the traditional use of herbs.


How is Western Herbal Medicine different to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

According to a study conducted by Wharton professor, Lisa Bolton and her team (“Health Remedies: From Perceptions to Preference to a Healthy Lifestyle”), Western Herbal Medicine “is closely linked to the scientific method and emphasises empirically measurable biochemical processes that drive disease, its treatment and health”.  Traditional Chinese Medicine focuses on balancing yin and yang, the key aspects within vital energy known as Qi; using a combination of diet, internal substances derived from plants, animal or mineral sources; acupressure, massage and moxibustion.


How is Western Herbal Medicine different to Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is based on the premise of treating ‘like with like’; that is using a very dilute substance which would trigger a similar condition than the one that is being treated.


In homeopathy, an individual is treated with highly diluted substances which are usually prescribed in tablet form.  Homeopaths believe a remedy diluted to 12C (centesimal) contains the vibration of the substance (it no longer contains the physical substance).  At 30C the remedy is diluted further.  This is very different from treating with herbs which contain a combination of phytochemicals, many of which researchers have isolated from the plant to confirm their action.


How is Western Herbal Medicine different to Drug Therapy?

Herbal Medicine utilises a combination of phytochemicals which are housed within a plant rather than isolating a single compound that has been found to exert a particular influence.  Also the herbalist chooses a combination of herbs with the individual in mind rather than the condition.  Side effects are less common than in drug therapy.

For example, research conducted on White Willow (Salix alba) found it contained a chemical known as salicin which converts to salicylic acid in your body, and is able to reduce pain and inflammation without the gastric upset that is associated with some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (even though they both do this via the chemical known as salicin).  This is because White Willow uses a different pathway in the body (COX-2 rather than COX-1).

Drug therapy often looks to the plants for inspiration.  Aspirin was derived from Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) and named through the combination of acetyl and spirae.  Some of the key constituents so far isolated from Meadowsweet include the phenolic glycosides, spiraein; the volatile oil, salicylaldehyde; and the flavonoid, spiraeoside.


How Are the Herbs Prescribed?

Each prescription is bespoke to you.  Your herbalist may prescribe the herbs in the form of a tincture (which is when the herbs are steeped in alcohol), aromatic waters, teas and decoctions, creams, ointments or pessaries.


How Do You Ensure the Quality of Your Herbs?

Tracy has a herbal dispensary supplied by organisations who provide practitioner strength, high quality herbal medicines.  In some cases, these herbal medicines are standardised to ensure a minimum quantity of a particular phytochemical.  Tracy purchases herbs from Mediherb, Avicenna, Granary Herbs and Broad Oak Herbs.  By way of example, the quality assurance process for Mediherb includes testing the herbs for: colour, aroma, texture, phytochemical content, thin layer chromatography fingerprinting, microbial levels, amount of extraneous matter, pesticides and herbacides, heavy metals, aflatoxins and radiation levels (source: Mediherb Product Catalogue).  All herbs come with an expiry date and Tracy also continues to test for freshness by assessing taste, smell and colour.


What is a Tincture?  How do I take a tincture?

A tincture is a particular herbal remedy where the herb is steeped in a combination of alcohol and water for a period of time.  The liquid containing the herb is strained leaving just the liquid.  This is referred to as a tincture prednisone 20mg.  Phytochemicals prefer water or alcohol (or oil).  A tincture is used to extract chemicals that move easily from the plant to the alcoholic substance.  To find out how to make your own tinctures, check out An Introduction to Making Herbal Remedies


To take your tincture, combine the amount of tincture as prescribed by your herbalist with approximately twice as much water and swallow.  Some tinctures are best taken before meals, others with or after meals.  You will be provided with all the information you need to maximise the benefits of taking your tincture at the time of the consultation.  You will also receive written instructions with your herbal medicine.


What is a Herbal Tea or Decoction?  How do I make my herbal tea or decoction?

A tisane, or tea, is made by steeping the leaves or flowers of a herb in hot water. To make a tisane, add a minimum of 2 tablespoons of your chosen herb, or herb combination, per cup and top with hot water. Cover and leave to steep for 5-10 minutes.


A decoction is the tea-making method used for the heavier parts of a herb, such as the roots, seeds and berries. To make a decoction, add a minimum of 2 tablespoons of your chosen herb, or herb combination, to 500ml of water. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for 15-minutes.  For a stronger decoction, you can also soak your herbs in the water (anywhere between 30-minutes and overnight).


What should I do if I feel unwell after taking the herbal medicine?

Side effects are very rare, but they do happen from time to time.  If you feel unwell, write down how you are feeling and call your Herbalist, who will advise accordingly.


If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor (these symptoms are highly unlikely to be herb related).


  • Persistent pain in your head, abdomen or central chest
  • Painful urination
  • If you notice any ulcers or fissures that aren’t painful


  • Blood in sputum, vomit, urine or stool
  • Stools that look black or tarry
  • Non menstrual vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal bleeding + pain in pregnancy or after missing a period


  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea, particularly if an infant
  • Thirst
  • Increase in the passing of your urine
  • Cough
  • Unexplained weight loss > 1lb per week


  • Breathing
  • Swallowing


  • Breathlessness
  • Swelling – face, lips, tongue, throat
  • Lips are blue
  • Bowel habit
  • Skin lesion – size, shape, colour, bleeding, itching, pain

Other Symptoms

  • Unexplained low mood
  • You look unusually pale
  • Unexplained lump or swelling
  • Neck stiffness with a fever
  • Unexplained fever (especially if it is persistent or recurrent)


What happens in a herbal medicine consultation?

The consultation starts with a conversation.  The purpose of the consultation is to gather information to allow the most appropriate herbs to be prescribed.   Because of this focus, your herbalist will ask you a variety of questions— from how your condition affects you, through to your diet and lifestyle choices.   This is because the herbalist prescribes herbs based on how you are affected by your condition.   Western herbal medicine focuses on you, your life at this point in time and you are affected by your condition rather than solely fitting a herb to a pathology.


An examination may be required (for example taking your blood pressure or listening to your chest).  This will be discussed during the consultation.  Tracy will also discuss any lifestyle or dietary adjustments that may be helpful and a full discussion of the herbs to be included in your prescription, why and how best to take your herbal medicine.


How long will I need to take my herbs for?

As a general rule, herbs may need to be taken for 1 month for every 6-months of illness.  But this depends on how well you adhere to the plan and your own individual health.  Tracy can advise for your particular situation during the consultation.


Book Now

Tracy Tutty holds a Saturday Clinic at the Petter Pharmacy Wellness Clinic in Crouch End, London.  Book in for a consultation with Tracy by clicking on the button to your left.


I would love to connect with you.  Please do say hi on twitter @TracyTutty or check out the latest recipes or herbie discussions on facebook at Make Herbal Remedies with Tracy