Herbal medicine is the use of medicinal plant material as a treatment of disease. Since plants are a complex mixture of organic components, the actions of a plant medicine are often multi-modal, meaning that they can have more than one action when used as medicine. Herbal medicine has a long tradition in several cultures. In naturopathic medicine, doctors are trained in Western herbal medicine, to which there are currently a multitude of approaches. I cannot write a comprehensive summary in this brief space, but I will provide you with an overview of herbal medicine.
Classification of Medicinal Herbs
Herbs are classified in the Western model of herbal medicine by their medicinal actions on the body eg. bitters, diuretics, circulatory stimulants. This classification is the result of clinical experience with the herbal medicines. One of the advantages of this system is that an herb can be in more than one category, and may be selected for you on an individual basis according to your specific situation; in other words, the herb used should be suited to the person. Recently, there has been a move to place herbs into more pharmaceutical categorizations and to refine them. I am of the opinion that taking herbs out of context in this manner does not take advantage of the empirical clinical knowledge of the plants and their strength as mixtures of compounds.
Using Herbal Medicine Responsibly
Herbal medicine is currently very concentrated on herbs that have become well known through the marketing work of the natural products industry. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis) are two plants which have suffered as a result, amongst others. They are now endangered in the wild in North America as a result of overharvesting. There are other plants in ready supply that may be substituted for these well-known herbs. Your practitioner should be able to advise you as to which herbs make ecologically and socially conscious substitutes for an herb that you have in mind.
Ensuring Quality in Your Herbal Medicines
Always be attentive to the quality of an herbal preparation. The herbs should be either wildcrafted or organically grown by a company of repute. A company should be willing to share it's quality control information with you as a customer. If they are not open with you about how they select their material, don't use their product! Many companies that package herbal remedies are not directly involved in the production of their herbs, but they should be able to tell you who they are purchasing from.
Some herbs are better as a tea (infusion), extracted in water (decoction), others are better in a tincture (extracted and preserved with alcohol). If you want to use a capsule or tablet form, make sure that you actually get enough herb in a capsule or tablet: herbal formulas with a tiny bit of 30 herbs are just not very likely to be effective, frankly. Also take into account what you are using the herb for; a bitter will not work as well if you don't taste it! Your practitioner should be able to advise you which form is best.