Many herbs contain compounds that can help treat diseases or help to ease symptoms. In fact, some modern medicines have their origins in herbal remedies. A common example of this is aspirin, which is a form of salicylic acid – a compound that occurs naturally in willow bark.

Herbal remedies can vary in their quality, effectiveness, and safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate them as closely as medications, and some have little scientific evidence to support their use.

It is always best to discuss health conditions and herbal supplements with a qualified medical professional wherever possible.

In this article, we look at what herbal remedies are, how they compare with medications, and some popular herbal remedies for conditions such as allergies, coughs, migraine, and anxiety.

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WIN-Initiative/Neleman/Getty Images Caption: Close-up of a Stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica)

Herbal remedies are a form of traditional medicine. They consist of herbs or compounds that come from herbs. They can also contain fungi or algae.

Herbal products come in a variety of formats, including:

  • capsules or tablets
  • whole dried plant parts, such as seeds, leaves, flowers, bark, or roots
  • powders that a person can add to liquids or food
  • tinctures, which people make by soaking plant parts in a liquid, such as alcohol, to extract compounds
  • herbal teas or tonics

Historically, herbs were one of the main ways people treated disease. Today, they are still part of many types of complementary medicine, such as herbalism, naturopathy, Ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Learn more about alternative, complementary, and integrative medicine.

There are some key differences between herbal remedies and prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications. It is important to be aware of these differences before using them.

Testing and quality

In the United States, the FDA regulates many herbal remedies as dietary supplements. This means that the FDA does not test them for their efficacy or safety before companies put them on the market.

Companies are responsible for ensuring the labels of their products do not contain inaccurate or misleading information. They can also choose to ask a third party to test their products for quality, but this is not compulsory.

By contrast, medical products have to meet strict standards before a company can sell them in the U.S.

Safety

Many people believe natural products are safer or gentler than prescription drugs. But as with any drug, herbs can be toxic at the wrong doses. They can also cause side effects, interactions, and allergic reactions.

Herbal products are only reviewed for safety and efficacy by the FDA if consumers or medical professionals report problems with them. In some cases, the FDA has banned herbal products after discovering that they contained illegal substances, unlisted ingredients, or poisons.

For example, some Ayurveda products contain mercury or lead, while some “natural” products for erectile dysfunction contain dangerously high amounts of unlisted, prescription-only drugs.

It is just as important to check herbs are safe before use as it is medications.

Evidence

The evidence showing that herbal remedies work can vary a lot. While some do have strong evidence showing they can benefit certain conditions, others have none. Additionally, the studies that look at herbal remedies are not always high quality, and may involve:

  • a small number of participants
  • a lack of diversity among participants
  • a short time frame
  • no placebo control group

This makes it difficult to know if a herbal remedy will work reliably across a large group of people, what the long-term effects are, or whether it is more effective than a placebo. There may also be a lack of information about the impact on pregnant people and children.

Some of the most popular herbal remedies for allergies include:

  • Butterbur: An older systematic review found that six small studies showed butterbur was similarly effective to modern antihistamines in treating allergies. But high-quality research is lacking, and some compounds in butterbur known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) can cause liver damage.
  • Stinging nettle: This plant contains compounds that may act as an antihistamine. A few small studies also support the idea that stinging nettle extracts are safe for human use, though more research is necessary.
  • Curcumin: This compound is present in turmeric. In a preliminary study, taking oral curcumin supplements helped ease nasal congestion and other symptoms and reduced the immune response in people with allergic rhinitis.
  • Garlic: Garlic and onions both contain quercetin, which is a type of antioxidant that appears to inhibit histamine production.

Be aware that people with pollen or plant allergies may also be allergic to herbs such as butterbur.

Migraine is a neurological condition that typically causes painful headaches, as well as other symptoms such as nausea and light sensitivity. Some herbal remedies people use for migraine include:

  • Butterbur: Butterbur extracts may help reduce the frequency of migraine in children and adults. But in 2015 the American Academy of Neurology stopped recommending this because of the risk of liver damage from PAs.
  • Feverfew: Feverfew contains compounds that seem to reduce the frequency of migraine symptoms. More research is necessary to see how effective feverfew is at preventing migraine.
  • Ginger: A 2020 review concluded that taking ginger seems to reduce migraine symptoms such as pain, nausea, and vomiting without any negative side effects.

For other types of headache, peppermint oil may help. Peppermint contains menthol, which can have a cooling effect on the skin. People can apply it by diluting in a safe quantity of carrier oil and massaging onto the skin. Menthol is not safe for children, so do not use this oil around them.

A number of OTC products for coughs contain compounds that come from plants. For example, cough lozenges often contain menthol to soothe a sore throat.

Examples of herbal remedies that may help to reduce coughs include:

  • Eucalyptus oil: According to a 2015 review, inhaling 12 drops of eucalyptus oil in 150 milliliters of boiling water up to three times daily can help reduce coughs.
  • Sage: Sage appears to reduce bronchospasm, or contractions of the airways. A 2015 animal study found that a liquid sage extract inhibited bronchospasm in rats. This may explain why sage is a historic remedy for coughs and asthma, but more research in humans is necessary to prove it works.
  • Licorice root: Some people use licorice gargles or lozenges to treat a sore throat. It may reduce soreness in the throat after surgery. But excessive amounts may cause high blood pressure.

There are many ancient cures for stress and anxiety. Some examples of herbal products that may help reduce stress and anxiety include:

  • Essential oils: A number of essential oils may reduce feelings of stress. Popular choices include lavender and peppermint. People can use essential oil diffusers to inhale the scent, or apply certain oils to the skin by diluting them in a carrier oil.
  • German chamomile: In one study, taking 1,500 milligrams per day of German chamomile extract for 8 weeks reduced symptoms in people with moderate to severe GAD at a rate similar to conventional antianxiety drug treatment.
  • Lemon balm: In a 2018 study involving 80 people with cardiovascular disease, researchers found that taking 3 grams of lemon balm extract daily for 8 weeks reduced depression, anxiety, and stress.

It is worth noting that some herbal remedies for anxiety, including lemon balm and chamomile, appear to work by affecting GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that impacts mood and sleep. As with antianxiety medications that work by changing GABA levels, these substances may cause side effects.

Learn more about effective treatments for anxiety.

If people wish to try a herbal remedy, there are steps they can take to ensure they use them safely.

Get expert advice and supervision

Always consult a qualified medical professional before using herbal remedies. This is especially important for people who are:

  • pregnant or nursing
  • trying to conceive
  • undergoing surgery or other medical treatments
  • taking other medications

If a herbal remedy is safe to use, follow the instructions on the label or the instructions of a doctor. If symptoms develop or get worse, or a person takes too much, stop using the product and seek medical attention.

Use high-quality products

When looking for herbal remedies, choose brands that use third-party testing to ensure their facilities and products are high quality and contain no contaminants. In the U.S., people can look for:

  • companies that follow “good manufacturing practices,” or GMPs
  • seals of quality from ConsumerLab, NSF International, or U.S. Pharmacopeia
  • gas chromatography and mass spectrometry testing for essential oils

These qualities indicate a product has no hidden ingredients or harmful levels of a substance. But they do not guarantee a product will be safe or effective, so it is still important to speak with a healthcare professional about using them.

Never give herbal remedies to others

As with medications, it is important not to give herbal products to others. What helps one person may harm another, so it is essential that others seek their own medical advice when it comes to treating conditions.

Never give herbal remedies to children unless instructed to do so by a doctor. Many herbal remedies may not be tested on children, and even those that seem harmless may impact child development.

To report safety concerns with dietary supplements, use the FDA’s safety reporting portal.

Herbal remedies are a type of traditional medicine that use plant-based ingredients to treat illnesses. Many are very popular, as they can be more affordable than prescription drugs. But it is important to remember that herbal remedies are not always effective or safe.

Always discuss taking herbs with a doctor before use, and look for products that are high quality and have scientific evidence to support their use.