Herbal medicine is also known as herbalism or botanical medicine, and it is an alternative medical system based on the use of plants or plant extracts to treat illness and disease.
Herbs have been used for many thousands of years by different cultures around the world. Herbal remedies can be ingested, applied topically to the skin, or taken in the form of capsules and tablets which is a generally more concentrated form.
Herbal remedies are increasingly being used alongside, or as an alternative to, conventional medicine, as people become disgruntled with unwanted side effects from drugs, and their spiralling cost. People find that in general, herbs are gentler on their system, and that instead of just treating symptoms, they restore balance, and therefore good health.
Rather than just treating diseases once they have occurred, many cultures use herbal remedies to prevent them, for example, turmeric is linked to a reduced risk of cognitive disease, and in India, where the spice is widely consumed, older people have one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world.
- 1 What is herbal medicine useful for?
- 1.1 The pros and cons of herbal medicine
- 1.2 The benefits of using herbal medicine
- 1.3 Less risk of side effects
- 1.4 They are effective for chronic conditions
- 1.5 They are cheaper
- 1.6 They are widely available
- 1.7 The cons of using herbal medicine
- 1.8 They are not appropriate for serious conditions
- 1.9 Sometimes there is a lack of information on dosages
- 1.10 Wild herbs can be poisonous
- 1.11 They can interact with medication
- 1.12 They are not regulated
- 1.13 Comfrey
- 1.14 The history of comfrey
- 1.15 The uses and benefits of comfrey
- 1.16 It’s very moisturizing
- 1.17 It’s an effective cleanser
- 1.18 It gets rid of blemishes
- 1.19 It can reduce the appearance of scars
- 1.20 It can treat eczema and psoriasis
- 1.21 It reduces hair loss
- 1.22 It is an ingredient in natural hair dyes
- 1.23 It restores your hair’s shine
- 1.24 It makes an excellent hair conditioner
- 1.25 It can heal bruises and sprains
- 1.26 It can help wounds to heal
- 1.27 It can help broken bones to heal
- 1.28 It can help with menstrual disorders
- 1.29 Comfrey is an effective analgesic
- 1.30 It can get rid of a cough
- 1.31 It can relieve the pain of arthritis
- 1.32 It can ease a sore throat and treat mouth ulcers
- 1.33 It can promote good digestion
- 1.34 Comfrey can treat nappy rash
- 1.35 Comfrey makes an attractive plant
- 1.36 Comfrey can be used as a fertilizer
- 1.37 Is comfrey safe?
- 1.38 Are there any significant drug interactions associated with comfrey?
- 1.39 Final thoughts
What is herbal medicine useful for?
Herbal medicine has been used to treat almost every condition you could think of. Here are some of the herb which have been proven to be effective and what they are useful for:
Aloe: used topically for minor burns, sunburns, skin irritation, or inflammation
Arnica: used topically for bruises, sprains, sore muscles, and joints
Chamomile tea: used for upset stomach, heartburn, indigestion, and colic
Comfrey: used in a topical poultice for bedsores, diabetic ulcers, some spider bites and staphylococcus infection
Dong quai: used as a tonic to improve general health and stamina
Echinacea: used to treat and prevent colds, flu, and sore throats
Garlic: can possibly reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, treat fungal infections, and colds
Ginger: effective for nausea and motion sickness, and as an anti-inflammatory
Mullein: used for chest congestion and dry, bronchial coughs
Passionflower: effective for non-sedating relaxation
Peppermint tea: used for indigestion, nausea, and other digestive problems
Peppermint oil: effective for irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive ailments
Tea tree oil: applied topically for fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and other fungal infections of the toenails and fingernails
Turmeric: ingested to combat inflammation and to protect against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease
Valerian: used to treat sleep disorders
The pros and cons of herbal medicine
Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years, and herbal remedies are gentler on the system in general. But natural does not always mean safe, and if you are considering using a herbal remedy, get qualified advice, and make an informed decision about what is best for you and your health.
The benefits of using herbal medicine
Less risk of side effects
Most herbal medicines are gentle on the system, and are better tolerated than drugs. They may be safer to use over time and produce considerably less side effects than traditional medicines. Being unable to tolerate side effects is a major reason for the discontinuation of medication.
They are effective for chronic conditions
Herbal medicines tend to be more effective for chronic health concerns, especially those that don’t respond to traditional medicine. For example, the herbs used to treat arthritis. One of the most well-known drugs for the treatment of arthritis, Vioxx, was recalled due to an increased risk of the patient developing cardiovascular problems. Herbal treatments for the condition have few or no side effects and have been shown to be effective, when taken in conjunction with lifestyle changes.
They are cheaper
Herbs cost far less than traditional drugs. Drugs have to be researched, tested, and marketed, which makes their cost spiral. Herbal medicines are naturally derived and tend to cost far less.
They are widely available
Herbs don’t need a prescription, and there are some herbs, like peppermint and chamomile, that you can grow at home. In some remote regions of the world, herbs might be the only available treatment for health problems.
The cons of using herbal medicine
Herbs are natural, but it does not mean that herbs are appropriate all of the time.
They are not appropriate for serious conditions
Serious health problems such as a heart attack, appendicitis, or a broken limb is far better treated with modern medicine, diagnostic tests, and surgery.
Sometimes there is a lack of information on dosages
Many herbs do not come with instructions on how much to take, like you get with modern medicines, so there is a real risk of taking enough to cause you harm.
Wild herbs can be poisonous
If you can’t correctly identify a herb, or you use the wrong part of it, there is a risk that it can cause poisoning.
They can interact with medication
Herbal treatments can interact with medications. Nearly all herbs come with a warning to this effect, and many, like the herbs used for anxiety and depression, such as Valerian and St. John’s Wort, can interact with prescription medication like antidepressants and the contraceptive pill. It’s important to discuss your medications and herbal supplements with your doctor to avoid potentially dangerous interactions. Natural does not always mean safe!
They are not regulated
Herbal products are often unregulated, unlike prescription drugs. There is the potential of buying products that are inferior in quality, and because standards can vary so much, there is no way of knowing exactly how much to take.
Comfrey leaf has been used as a healing remedy for thousands of years. It was widely used in North America and Europe. There is quite a lot of debate about how safe it is however, as some parts and compounds of the plant contain alkaloids; compounds which are potentially toxic. The safety of the herb all depends on the part of the plant you use, what species of it you use, and how it is harvested, and there is evidence to suggest that it is safe to use if used sensibly and with caution.
The plant is a member of the Borage family, and there are about 35 different species of the plant. Comfrey has large, rough leaves with white, pink, or purple flowers. It is native to Europe, and flourishes in Asian regions like Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Siberia, and Turkey. It is also commonly found as a weed in more northern and temperate climates.
The name comfrey comes from the Latin term ‘con firma’ which means ‘knitting together’. This comes from the idea that the plant was used to heal bones traditionally.
The plant is best harvested when the flowers are just starting to bud. The alkaloid content varies depending on the season. The highest amount of alkaloids are found early in the harvest.
The history of comfrey
The Ancient Greeks and Romans noted many of comfrey’s benefits, and the plant was cultivated in gardens for many thousands of years. Traditionally, its main uses were to heal wounds, and to treat strains, sprains, and broken bones.
The uses and benefits of comfrey
It’s very moisturizing
It provides the skin with moisture. Comfrey is an excellent choice for people who have dry or sensitive skin.
It’s an effective cleanser
Comfrey has astringent properties so it tightens pores and is a very effective cleanser.
It gets rid of blemishes
Comfrey is an excellent treatment to consider if you want to get rid of unwanted blemishes and dark spots on the skin. The presence of the compound allantoin in comfrey helps to heal most skin problems, such as pigmentation and breakouts.
It can reduce the appearance of scars
Comfrey can promote the healing of burns and scars. Its moisturising properties help to soften rough and damaged skin, and make scars less visible.
It can treat eczema and psoriasis
Comfrey also treats psoriasis, a skin condition that makes the skin itchy and red, and is characterised by scaly patches, and eczema, a skin disorder where patches of skin become inflamed and rough, leading to weeping, broken areas of skin. Comfrey can also heal ulcers that develop due to poor circulation or skin wounds that get infected.
It reduces hair loss
Hair loss is common, and can be related to stress, a hormone or thyroid problem, or an autoimmune disorder. Comfrey helps to promote the growth of thick, lustrous hair. It is completely natural so it will promote the growth of healthy hair, rather than blitz your head with chemical hair products.
It is an ingredient in natural hair dyes
Chemical based hair dyes are bad news for your hair and cause damage to it in the long term. Why not try vegetable or henna based dyes, which are much gentler on your hair and scalp? Comfrey is often used as an addition to natural dyes, and its healing properties will nourish your hair and fight dandruff.
It restores your hair’s shine
Using comfrey along with other natural ingredients as a topical tonic for your hair restores sheen and promotes healthy, strong hair growth.
It makes an excellent hair conditioner
Comfrey’s moisturising and nourishing properties help to make it an excellent conditioner for your hair.
It can heal bruises and sprains
Comfrey has soothing properties so it can reduce the pain of bruises and sprains when applied directly to the skin over the affected area.
It can help wounds to heal
Comfrey leaves can be applied as a paste or its juice can be used on open wounds. The antibacterial properties of comfrey can help to prevents the growth of bacteria that can cause infection. Comfrey can also heal skin ulcers and diabetic sores, especially when a paste is made from the leaf.
It can help broken bones to heal
Comfrey has anti-inflammatory and soothing properties which can help to reduce the discomfort of broken bones and promotes healing.
It can help with menstrual disorders
Comfrey is thought to provide relief from menstrual disorders, especially heavy bleeding.
Comfrey is an effective analgesic
Comfrey is particularly effective at reducing joint pain and inflammation elsewhere in the body.
It can get rid of a cough
Comfrey has soothing properties so it can help to cure a cough, and get rid of a sore throat.
It can relieve the pain of arthritis
The Romans and Ancient Greeks used comfrey leaf to treat joint problems, and for good reason. The anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of comfrey can help to relieve the pain and swelling associated with arthritis.
It can ease a sore throat and treat mouth ulcers
Comfrey leaves are commonly used in gargles and mouthwashes to help to get rid of mouth ulcers and other mouth infections. It can also ease a sore throat when used in this way. Its soothing effects means that it is often used in preparations designed to treat infections and other problems with the respiratory tract.
It can promote good digestion
Herbal tea made using Comfrey leaves stimulates the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach. This helps to digest food and prevents problems like heartburn, acidity, and other digestive ills. The soothing effect it has on the digestive tract prevents most digestion-related problems, which are among the most common reasons why people visit their doctor.
Comfrey can treat nappy rash
Ointments that are made using comfrey leaf extracts are effective at treating nappy rash. The comfrey is a good natural solution, however, do a patch test to check for any sensitivity since babies have very delicate skin.
Comfrey makes an attractive plant
Comfrey is also used as an attractive ornamental plant with its large and distinctive green leaves and flowers. Since it can be grown in a variety of conditions, it can be easily grown all year round.
Comfrey can be used as a fertilizer
Comfrey enriches compost and makes it more nutrient rich. Piles of comfrey leaves can be dried with heavy water buckets on top of them to make a concentrated liquid fertilizer. It will have a pungent smell but it is very effective in the preparation of manure, and will add plenty of nutrients to the soil.
Is comfrey safe?
Comfrey appears to be generally safe when applied to unbroken skin in small amounts. However, the potentially poisonous chemicals present in comfrey can still pass through the skin, so they can still be absorbed if your skin is broken or if large amounts are administered. It is considered unsafe to take comfrey by mouth because of these chemicals, which are known to cause liver damage, lung damage, and cancer. The US Food and Drug Administration has recommended banning all oral forms of comfrey for this reason.
However, some advocates argue that the chemicals, known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in comfrey are overall less toxic than those found in known poisonous plants, such as ragwort. It also raises doubts whether the chemicals could cause cancer outside of the lab tests, and argue that a study has shown that if comfrey is used properly, it does not cause toxicity or death.
As you are always reminded however, even though comfrey is natural, this does not mean that it can’t cause problems. Use it topically in small amounts, and avoid ingesting it. Avoid it completely if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, and don’t allow children or the elderly to ingest it. There is a lack of evidence about how safe it is for use by these at risk groups.
Are there any significant drug interactions associated with comfrey?
There are no known reports of interaction between comfrey and conventional drugs, however, some herbs that have been known to cause liver problems, such as kava, skullcap, and valerian, should not be used alongside comfrey products because there is an increased risk of liver damage.
Herbal medicine is being used increasingly alongside conventional medicine, or indeed, instead of it. As people look for a solution to their health concerns, they are increasingly turning to alternative remedies, as side effects and the spiralling cost of drugs makes the alternative seem much more attractive.
Plant-based medicines have been used for thousands of years to treat many different ills. In fact, many of the drugs we use today are derived from plant-based compounds.
Herbal remedies can be used for just about health concern you could name. They are cheaper, more available, and are easily used as part of a healthy lifestyle.
However, remember that just as herbal medicines have their place, they cannot completely replace conventional medicines, as herbs definitely won’t treat very serious problems such as heart attacks, appendicitis, or limb fractures.
As herbs are largely unregulated, there is often no recommendation on safe dosage. Add to this that the potency of the herb will depend on many variables such as how it was harvested and grown and how pure it is, then you can see how this becomes increasingly uncertain.
Comfrey has long been used to treat joint sprains and strains, and it turns out that the humble plant can actually be used for much more than this. It’s great for the skin and hair, and it combats infections. Mother Nature has definitely worked her magic again with this one!