We share the potential of home herbalism to support health, as well as its limitations. We also talk about the differences between treating yourself at home and the benefits of seeing a herbalist.
Bring back home herbalism
Not too long ago some general herbal knowledge was a part of every household, as intrinsic as the skill of knowing how to cook or how to grow food. In fact, in many cultures, this knowledge is still a part of the home.
However, a rapid change in culture this past 100 years has meant that these skills which were woven into the fabric of home life, have been largely forgotten. Paracetamol replaces cramp bark for menstrual pain, antibiotics instead of elderberry for a cold. The emerging medical paradigm has led to a rise in ’magic bullet’ medicine dominated by pharmaceutical treatments. Whilst often useful, medical advances have partly come at the expense of a more preventative approach where the common knowledge of home remedies and simple self-care skills was once so widespread.
Given the pressures on all medical systems and the exponential increase in positive research into the benefits of herbal solutions, perhaps it is time to bring back more home herbalism. And it is equally important that we develop a greater understanding of when and how to direct people to herbalists for medical guidance.
The rise of natural medicines
The increasing interest from the public to seek natural solutions is clear; there has been significant growth in the use of “natural” medicines and food supplements over the past few years. The global herbal medicine and supplements market size was approximately worth US $83 billion in 2019 and is predicted to reach $550 billion by 2030 (8). However, it is important to note that this upsurge is largely for over-the-counter supplements and the rise in interest has not necessarily translated into people adopting a holistic approach to health nor frequenting herbalists’ clinics more.
Our daily health needs coupled with the gaps in modern healthcare show how important it is to understand the value of herbalists and the herbal paradigm. After all, professional herbalists have committed years of study and clinical hours to understand natural health processes and how herbs work from a scientific, traditional and holistic perspective- and they are trained to do this safely and effectively.
The healing home herbalism
Home herbalism is just what it says it is; bringing the power of herbs into your daily life to look after yourself. It means including the best and safest insights from the world’s herbal traditions in your daily life. This involves working with herbs at home, but can also include integrating a more holistic approach to your health that involves learning about the foods, exercises, and the lifestyle habits that suit you. It’s a way to take charge of your health and continually learn how to nourish your inner and outer wellbeing.
Using herbs and spices at home to better your health can range from increasing the use of culinary herbs and spices in the kitchen, to enjoying herbal teas, to perhaps using more specialist herbs to support your specific health needs. It can also be making one’s own balms, salves, syrups and herbal preparations. A home herbalist would not treat a disease, but would have knowledge about day-to-day common health needs and how to support them naturally. Enhancing and supporting daily nourishment, cleansing and recuperation are at the heart of home herbalism; digestion, sleep, emotional balance are tweaked and managed throughout the day with little herbal ‘nudges’.
Whilst pharmaceuticals can be very useful, they can also cause some negative side effects. Many allopathic doctors agree that as a society, we are largely overmedicated. Statistics show that currently in England around 15% of people are taking five or more medicines a day, with 7% on 8 or more, and adverse reactions are thought to account for up to 20% of hospital admissions (3). Reviews from NHS initiatives estimate that it is possible that at least 10% of the total number of prescription items in primary care need not have been prescribed (3). Working with herbal medicines is a viable option to help alleviate these wider systemic problems. At its roots, herbalism aims to create a sustainable and good quality of life.
The evolutionary logic of home herbalism
Home herbalism is a logical habit to adopt. Infusing our bodies with the phytochemical complexity of plant and fungi extracts has always been at the centre of our interdependent relationship with nature. Nourishing our tissues, organs and systems like this means we may have more naturally supported vitality to prevent long-term health issues. Chronic conditions are rapidly on the rise, with data suggesting between 16%-57% (7) of people in developed countries suffer from one or more chronic diseases. Herbal medicines in all their complexity are perfectly matched to support these diverse and multi-dimensional conditions. For any recurring serious health condition, we recommend you see a qualified herbalist to get individualised care from a health professional. Search here to find a herbalist.
For example, neuroinflammation can lead to and exacerbate a vast array of illnesses from depression to Alzheimer’s. Unhealthy modern lifestyles largely contribute to this, and incorporating herbs into our day-to-day lives can offer an antidote to this. Research shows that plants may turn out to be better at reducing neuroinflammation than novel anti-inflammatory medicines (5). For example, polyphenols are a phytochemical ubiquitous in many plants and have a vast array of supportive effects on the body and can help support neuroinflammation (5). Plants rich in these include simple kitchen plants like turmeric, green tea, red grapes and rosemary. More can be read about this in our article “Neuroinflammation: An emerging role for herbs and spices?“.
Science is also showing how important a healthy microbiome is for health, and that an imbalanced microbiome can play a major role in the severity of many different illnesses. Considerable research shows that plants generally promote a healthier and more diverse microbiome, and most kitchen spices have been shown to promote healthy populations of different bacteria groups. These include black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, chilli, ginger and garlic (6) and more can be read about this topic in our article “Plants and the gut microbiome: Prebiotics and postbiotics“. Home herbalism can really be as simple as incorporating more of these plants into your diet.
Self-care and home herbalism
Self-care is fundamental for good health, and mainstream medical advice encourages this more and more. Much has been done to encourage self-care. For example, The College of Medicine has created valuable resources to encourage self-care for an array of conditions and often times encourage the use of herbs. Home herbalism is an enriching way to increase self-care in your daily life, and is oftentimes cheap and easy to implement. You can learn more about self-care with home herbalism in this course from Living Medicine and with Betonica School of Herbal Medicine. We also share events and courses in our fortnightly newsletter and in our resources section.
How to incorporate herbs at home
There are many different ways to incorporate using medicinal plants at home. Good quality herbal teas are a simple way to do this, and you can even grow and dry your own herbs to make your own home apothecary, or forage them for yourself. You can read about how to forage sustainably. Alternatively, you can buy dried herbs from herbalists or herbal shops and keep them for when you want to blend your own teas. You can explore how different herbs work and when they are useful by looking at our herbal monographs in our section called “Herbs”. You can also check herbal safety here as certain plants and fungi are contraindicated with certain conditions and pharmaceuticals. We also have a section on growing herbs so you can grow your own medicinal plant garden.
For example, a simple tulsi tea is lovely to cleanse the mind and increase focus if you are working from home. Peppermint after meals helps us digest food and increases nutrient absorption, as does lemon balm. Ginger tea is energising and warming, helping to increase circulation and it also supports a healthy immune system. Other tasty herbs to have in your home apothecary for teas are fennel, linden, cinnamon, chamomile, lavender, nettle, rose, liquorice and dandelion.
And with some of the right know-how you can also make your own herbal preparations at home. From glycerines to tinctures and aromatherapy blends, herbal honeys and decoctions there are an array of ways you can prepare your plants depending on what you need and the type of plant you are processing. For example, roots and barks like burdock often need decocting rather than simply steeping, and some fresh plants like elderberry need to be boiled into a syrup in order to be safe. You can learn how to make herbal remedies on our Making Herbal Remedies section.
Finally, one of the best ways to incorporate more plants and herbal medicines into our lives is through our food and diet. Simply incorporating more herbs and spices into our food is not only delicious but will help us optimise our health. Our article “Rainbow food and phytonutrients” explains how increasing plant diversity in our diet enriches our levels of phytonutrients and therefore health. Herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage can be incorporated into many Western style dishes and spices like fenugreek, chilli, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, coconut oil, and mustard seeds are great in many different Asian inspired dishes.
Our article “The Ayurvedic approach to digestive health and nutrition” shares some delicious and simple recipes that incorporate lots of different medicinal plants, and in this article “Primitive sense and the intuitive mind: Sensory herbal medicine” we share knowledge on sensory herbal medicine and tasting medicinal compounds.
Why everybody should see a herbalist
Home herbalism can offer fantastic health benefits, and everybody would benefit by knowing a few go-to plants for various situations in life. However, nothing will ever replace the craft and practice of a learned clinical herbalist.
Herbalists, whether from the Ayurvedic, Chinese, Western or other traditions, are trained to a degree level or equivalent, and in the UK have to complete 500 clinical hours and 2500 hours of training in order to qualify. They are also trained in nutrition and can offer a holistic healthcare plan that incorporates different lifestyle changes, as well as a personalised prescription formulated for the individual. There are governing bodies for Herbalists that can be found at The Herbal Alliance, and clinical herbalists can be found on our resources section.
Whilst incorporating herbs into our lives enhances our health, to truly treat an illness the pathophysiology of it needs to be understood. In other words, one has to know the mechanisms that are happening in the body and then treat accordingly. This is not common knowledge to most people, and so home herbalism is limited to treating the more self-limiting symptoms as well as generally nourishing health. It is easy for people to waste a lot of time and money, and precious healing time, trying to treat complex conditions with over-the-counter supplements that simplify solutions rather than treating the crux of what is going wrong. Seeing a herbalist addresses this issue as a herbalist who knows how to diagnose and work with herbs safely, protecting patients from misdiagnosis and herb-drug interactions.
Problems in the natural supplements industry
Anyone using herbs is faced with two big challenges; is the quality good, is the sustainability ethical? A study showed that out of 35 ginkgo biloba products from the UK only 2 were of medicinal quality and many products had been adulterated with other non-medicinal plants and chemical substances (1). Quality can be better assured if you learn about quality issues in the supply. Our article “Herbal quality and safety: What to know before you buy” has more information on how to choose better herbs. As 20% of the plants used therapeutically are now threatened with extinction, ensure you are buying herbs with some environmental accreditations and social welfare guarantees. Here we share information on sourcing sustainable medicines.
Herbalists and natural health stores will be reliable sources of information regarding the quality and sustainability of herbs.
Home herbalism is an easy, affordable and fun way to increase your health and wellbeing. There are many ways you can source and prepare your herbs, and many delicious recipes you can try with lots of inspiration on our website. However, for serious, complex or chronic conditions it is always best to see a clinical herbalist.
- Booker A, Frommenwiler D, Reich E, Horsefield S, Heinrich M. Adulteration and poor quality of ginkgo biloba supplements. Journal of Herbal Medicine. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2210803316300239. Published April 13, 2016. Accessed January 2, 2023.
- InsightSLICE. Herbal Medicine market global sales are expected to reach US$ 550 billion by 2030, as stated by insightslice. GlobeNewswire News Room. https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2021/02/16/2176036/0/en/Herbal-Medicine-Market-Global-Sales-Are-Expected-To-Reach-US-550-Billion-by-2030-as-stated-by-insightSLICE.html. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- Gov.UK. Good for you, good for us, good for everybody: A plan to … – gov.uk. Good for you, good for us, good for everybody. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1019475/good-for-you-good-for-us-good-for-everybody.pdf. Published September 22, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- Akhondzadeh S, Naghavi HR, Vazirian M, Shayeganpour A, Rashidi H, Khani M. Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: A pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam. Journal of clinical pharmacy and therapeutics. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11679026/. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- Mills S. Neuroinflammation: An emerging role for herbs and spices? Herbal Reality. https://www.herbalreality.com/herbalism/herbal-research/neuroinflammation-emerging-role-herbs-spices/. Published May 13, 2022. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- Mills S. Plants and the gut microbiome: Prebiotics and postbiotics. Herbal Reality. https://www.herbalreality.com/health-lifestyle/digestion-nutrition/plants-gut-microbiome/. Published December 7, 2022. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- Hajat C, Stein E. The global burden of multiple chronic conditions: A narrative review. Preventive medicine reports. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6214883/. Published October 19, 2018. Accessed January 5, 2023.
- insightSLICE. Herbal Medicine market global sales are expected to reach US$ 550 billion by 2030, as stated by insightslice. GlobeNewswire News Room. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/02/16/2176036/0/en/Herbal-Medicine-Market-Global-Sales-Are-Expected-To-Reach-US-550-Billion-by-2030-as-stated-by-insightSLICE.html. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2023.