Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health. There is not enough reliable scientific evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer.
- Herbal medicine uses plants or plant extracts to treat illness and promote health
- There is not enough scientific evidence to use it as a cancer treatment
- Herbal medicines might have side effects and interact with other medicines
- Herbal medicines may not be regulated if made outside the UK, and what they contain can vary. If you are going to buy herbal remedies it is safest to buy them from a fully qualified herbal practitioner.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicines are made from plants. They use combinations of plant parts, for example leaves, flowers or roots. Each part of the plant can have a different medicinal use. Manufacturers use different ways of extracting the chemicals from the plant parts. They use fresh and dried plants to make the medicine.
Herbal medicine aims to restore your body, so that it can protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach. It looks at your physical, mental and emotional well being. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phytotherapy or botanical medicine.
Manufacturers make many drugs 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. And not from one 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
Western herbal therapists usually make medicines from European and North American herbs. They also use herbs from China and India.
Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants or plant parts. They believe it helps your body to heal itself or to reduce the side effects of medical treatments.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese herbal medicine is part of a whole system of medicine. The system is 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.
Yin and yang refer to different qualities of Qi. When all of the yin and yang aspects of Qi are in harmony with one another, there is health, wellbeing and peace. Illness is due to a disturbance of the balance between yin and yang. Chinese herbalists use plants according to how they affect a part of the body or energy channel.
- 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. They might use the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds. Usually, they combine herbs and you take them as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.
Why people with cancer use it?
Herbal medicine is one of the most 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. This is alongside conventional cancer treatments.
People have used herbal medicine for centuries to treat many different health conditions. They believe it is 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
People might also use herbal medicine to help themselves to feel better or more in control of their situation.
A 2011 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 that it helped them to feel that they have some responsibility for their treatment. They also felt the therapies wouldn’t cause side effects.
How you have it?
During your first visit, the herbalist will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet and medical history.
During your first visit, the herbalist will:
- take your full history
- ask about your family’s medical history
- discuss your diet and lifestyle
- find out about any medication or supplements you use
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)
- powders made into tablets or capsules
- water-based solutions like a tea that you make from raw herbs
- a cream or ointment
- oil-based solutions like a cream or ointment
Your herbalist may suggest that you go back for another appointment after a few weeks. How long you continue seeing them will depend on why you are using herbal medicine.
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)
Using herbal medicines safely
Many people assume that products are safe to use when marketed as natural or herbal.
Some herbal medicines might be safe. But others can have severe and dangerous side effects. And, they might interact with other cancer treatments you are having. We need more research into this.
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in America looked at how herbal medicines can change the way other drugs work. They suggest that the following herbal remedies can interact with cancer treatments:
- kava kava
- St John’s wort
Some herbal treatments might affect the way your body processes cancer drugs. For example the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in America says that St John’s wort can cause your body to get rid of the drug, imatinib (Glivec), quicker. This means it could make the imatinib less effective at fighting your cancer.
Some herbal medicines might increase the effect of cancer drugs. This means that you could have too much treatment.
Other herbal medicines can interfere with some drugs. For example, Asian ginseng and bilberry can increase the risk of bleeding after surgery.
Some herbal remedies make your skin more sensitive to light. Do not take them while having radiotherapy.
Each type of herbal remedy might have 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. You report it to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The MHRA is the UK regulatory body. It 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.@cancerqueries