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What Are the Different Types of Herbal Therapy?

By R. Bargar
Updated May 17, 2024
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Herbal therapy encompasses many traditional and modern systems of botanical medicine, using plants and other natural substances for their healing properties. A wide variety of types of botanical treatment exist for both prevention and healing, as plants from around the globe are being researched and made available. Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Ayurvedic system of healing from India are both ancient healing traditions that rely heavily on herbal therapy. Many folk medicine customs also depend on plants for their curative and preventative properties. Modern herbalists combine the most effective of many of the global healing traditions to craft herbal medicine appropriate for use today.

Methods of delivering the active ingredients in herbal medicine are diverse. One of the most ancient and simplest ways to take herbs is as an infusion or decoction. Similar to making tea, the herb is heated in water to release its active principles. Fresh or dried leaves or flowers are heated briefly when making an infusion, while a decoction is boiled for a longer period of time and uses the tougher parts of the plant such as roots, bark or seeds. These are water based plant extracts and are consumed quickly, as they contain no preserving agent.

For an herbal therapy that can be stored for longer periods of time, herbal tinctures use a menstruum — a substance that both extracts and preserves the active principles of the plant. Alcohol, vinegar, wine and glycerin are all used for this purpose. These herbal medicines can be taken internally or used in topical applications. Ointments, poultices and lotions use the medicinal qualities of plants to treat skin conditions, wounds and burns. Oil extractions are also appropriate for topical use.

Some types of herbal therapy use single herbs having properties that address specific conditions. Others use a combination of herbs that are believed to have synergistic actions to treat or prevent disorders. Many traditional systems rely heavily on preventing disease through the routine use of tonic herbs. Modern herbology frequently uses both current scientific studies and traditional resources to create botanical therapies.

In some regions of the world, conventional medical practitioners use herbal therapy along with modern pharmaceuticals to treat disease. Traditional herbal protocols are used in parallel with modern medical practices in other areas, with patients choosing care from either system as they see appropriate. Many regions of the globe rely heavily on traditional and folk medicine for the bulk of health care needs. Herbs and other natural medicinal substances play a primary role in many of these healing traditions.

Although there is continuing controversy about the effectiveness of herbal therapy, scientific research into the medicinal properties of plants is an expanding area of study. Some studies are inconclusive, while others have confirmed the benefits of herbs for a variety of conditions. Like pharmaceuticals, botanical medicines might have undesirable side effects and interactions with conventional medications, although many studies have found these to be generally less frequent and severe than those of their pharmaceutical counterparts.

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