A photo of the echinacea plant
Echinacea is one of our top 10 herbal remedies because of its valuable immune boosting properties

Herbal remedies – 10 of the best

12 September, 2011

Herbs can be a gentle and effective way of dealing with health problems, and many simple ailments can be treated yourself by keeping a few useful herbs at home. But knowing which remedy to use for more complex conditions can be more difficult and require professional assistance.

Of all the trends in healthcare the steady increase in the use of herbal medicines has been one of the most remarkable.

Whereas herbalism was once viewed as a fringe interest or a poor man’s form of healthcare, these day you will find learned medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal discussing the latest research on the antidepressant effect of St John’s wort or anti-cancer properties of garlic or the sleep inducing effects of passion flowers.

Herbal remedies are an effective and valid way of self-treating many day-to-day health complaints. But knowing which herb to choose and how much to take (and when not to take them) can be difficult for the uninitiated.

The problem has been made worse by legislation which, although intended to protect the consumer, often works against his or her best interests.

Legislation, legislation, legislation

The European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products (THMPD) has come into force on 30th October 2005. The Directive allowed for a seven-year transitional period for products legally on the market on 30th April 2004, giving them protection until 30th April 2011, after which time new rules applied.

These new rules meant that all herbal medicinal products are now required to obtain an authorisation for sale within the EU. To do this a company needs to demonstrate that the herbal medicine has been in use within the EU for at least 15 years or for 30 years outside the EU.

There is concern beneficial ‘new’ herbs which cannot meet the 30 year rule may be removed from sale. But also that it may not be possible to license some traditional herbal medicines which were in common use more than 30 years ago, but have since fallen into disuse.

Particular combinations of herbal products may also be disallowed. ‘Traditional use’ under the THMPD is based on use of an individual herb or specific combination of herbs. It therefore prevents use of new or innovative combinations that might be supported by emerging science.

All herbal medicines must also now comply with pharmaceutical standard Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) to ensure the quality of the finished product and also demonstrate safety – and many smaller companies have been unable to afford this and gone out of business.

The only herbal medicines that are exempted from the provisions of the Directive are those unlicensed remedies that are made up for a patient following a one-to-one consultation with an herbalist.

Herbs are the closest thing in the natural world to the conventional medicines we use today – indeed many prescription medicines are have been copied from the actions of herbal remedies. But herbs also have a complex nature, often made up of hundreds of active compounds. Adverse side effects from herbal remedies are generally rare – much rarer than with conventional drugs – but they are not unheard of.

Because of this they should be taken with respect and not in a careless “natural equals best” way.  If in doubt it is advisable to consult with a qualified herbalist who will be able to tailor-make an herbal prescription for you and also advise on any possible interactions if you are taking any other medication.

Ten of the best

Interest in herbal remedies continues to grow and may end up being one of the healthiest revolutions in health care.

The debate rages on as to whether whole plant extracts or those standardised to contain a certain amount of the plant’s known active component are best. There is probably merit in both depending on what you want to treat.

Researchers love standardized extracts because they are easy to research. But many herbalists believe that there is too much we do not know about all the chemicals in plant remedies and how they interact to say that a single component is responsible for its healing action.

This point was illustrated recently in a letter to the Lancet  which suggested that St John’s wort may have many more active components than just hypericin and that in taking the standardised herb we may be getting less of a healing reaction than we might otherwise.  If you are confused about what kind of product to take it may be worth consulting a professional.

Remember however that certain general guidelines apply when choosing and using herbal remedies. For instance, when considering self-treatment always be suspicious of:

  • Dried herbs that do not look and smell fresh.
  • Any herbal mixture that seems too cheap to be true probably is.
  • Dried herbs or tinctures that don’t have a taste.  Whether dried or liquid an herbal mixture should taste like an herbal mixture. Each herb has a distinct taste and smell. If not it is likely to be of inferior quality.
  • Exotic sounding herbs you’ve never heard of.  Unless you are an expert, stick to names you know.  Leave prescriptions for the weird and wonderful to professionals and even then always ask what the plant is and what it does.
  • For the treatment of children see a qualified practitioner. Likewise if you are taking prescribed medication.
  • Be very cautious during pregnancy; double check that any herb you use is safe and suitable during this time. If in doubt see a qualified herbalist before using. See our precautions and contrainditations here.

If you’re new to herbs, and even if you are not, the list below provides a good basis for understanding some of the most widely used and most widely available herbal remedies.

To read the list in full click the page links at the bottom of the page. To skip to a specific herb, choose from the list below:


  • Adapted from What Works, What Doesn’t: The guide to alternative healthcare by Pat Thomas. See here for details.
  • Neal’s Yard Remedies sells a full range of herbal remedies. See here for more information.