Is Herbal Medicine a Complementary Therapy

“Is herbal medicine a complementary therapy?”

Discuss the ways in which herbal medicine is a complementary therapy and draw your own conclusion.

Defining complementary therapy and herbal medicine:

Complementary: “Combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize the qualities of each other or another.” (Oxford Dictionaries)

Therapy: “Treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.” (Oxford Dictionaries)

Herbal: “Relating to or made from herbs, especially those used in cooking and medicine.” (Oxford Dictionaries)

Medicine: “The science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery)” (Oxford Dictionaries)

Working with the above definitions, this essay will address the ways in which herbal medicine is a complementary therapy. For the purposes of this essay, a complementary therapy will thus be defined as a treatment that intends to relieve or heal a disorder which combines with another therapy or medicine. The world of complementary therapy encompasses many different modalities which include, according to the NHS website: homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, herbal medicine and many more. Complementary and Alternative therapies are often talked about interchangeably however it is important to note the difference in word choice and the power of connotation in these circumstances as both terms do in many ways imply that the practice of these therapies is in some way less than that of mainstream practice, in this case orthodox medicine.

Martin Ekors cites within his paper on the growing use of herbal medicines (Ekors, 2014) that it is estimated by the World Health Organization that around 80% of the world population use herbal or traditional medicine as their primary healthcare. The question here begins to emerge as to whether herbal medicine should merely be considered complementary or whether in some cases, although not necessarily down to choice, it is in fact primary care and in this instance, mainstream. It is also of importance to recognise that within the UK, medical herbalists have to train to a high level in order to be safe practitioners and have the right of primary diagnosis. This is a unique license that was granted in the 1968 Medicines Act in Britain (Roscore Clinic website).

The ways in which herbal medicine is a complementary therapy:

One way in which herbal medicine is a complementary therapy is that it can work alongside orthodox medicine. Part of a medical herbalists training within the UK is to look at pharmaceutical interactions between drugs and herbs and take this into consideration when prescribing any herbal remedy to the patient. There have been many studies regarding hawthorn and its usage but the paper “Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease” (Tassell, M et al, 2010)  looks at the fact that hawthorn shows little to no drug interactions but improves symptoms of cardiovascular disease (even when used alongside pharmaceutical drugs such as digoxin). This analysis of many studies points to the fact that hawthorn can be used safely alongside orthodox medicine, and in some cases can improve prognosis, although the reason being still remains quite unclear. Thus, in the framework of this discussion this fact supports the statement that herbal medicine is a complementary therapy in that it can help to relieve or heal a disorder alongside another therapy. It is interesting to bring attention to the fact that Digoxin is in fact a pharmaceutical drug that is referred to as ‘nature identical’ as it is derived from Digitalis spp. (Heinrich et al, 2016) This drug has been formulated through the isolation of constituents from the foxglove plant and medical herbalists are no longer legally allowed to prescribe the plant. It appears that the history of orthodox medicine as being rooted in herbal medicine is a distant memory for many.

Another way that herbalists provide a complementary therapy is in that they give time to the patient. In the UK, herbalists are usually not within the primary healthcare setting and thus work on the fringe. According to the health careers NHS website, on average, GPs see 18-20 patients in just a morning. Herbal practitioners on the other hand have more time with the patient. This time allows them to truly assess what the patients needs and wants are in order to heal but more importantly, this time allows practitioner to empower the patient to understand the illness and the ways in which they can ameliorate it. The time spent with practitioner is part of the treatment, the therapeutic relationship is paramount. Andrew Chevallier (2016) eloquently states that “Most European herbalists use orthodox methods of diagnosis, looking for signs of infection and inflammation, for example. However, most also try to establish a broad, holistic picture, placing the illness in the context of the patient’s life as a whole. Herbalists then choose plant medicines and recommend suitable dietary and lifestyle changes that will allow the body’s self-regenerating powers – the modern equivalents of the “vital spirit” – to establish good health once again.” In herbalism the power does not lie within the hands of the practitioner, the power is always with the patient.


“Holistic medicine addresses itself to the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of those who come for care. It views health as a positive state, not as the absence of disease. It emphasises the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of tailoring treatment to meet each person’s needs. The promotion of health and the prevention of disease is a priority, whilst emphasis is placed on the responsibility of each individual for his or her own health. The therapeutic approaches employed are aimed at mobilising the person’s innate capacity for self-healing…Illness may be an opportunity for discovery as well as a misfortune.” (Hoffman, 1991)

It is clear that herbal medicine is, without a doubt, a complementary therapy. However, it is also clear that it is so much more. In order to truly appreciate herbal medicine I believe that the words complementary or alternative need to be either reclaimed from the herbal or alternative movement in a way that truly acknowledges the breadth of knowledge, expertise and wisdom that herbal medicine encompasses or completely disregarded. Herbalism is a holistic practice that weaves science, nature, art and intuition in order to benefit the health of an individual. In order to develop a health care system that looks at disease on an individual basis and works to prevent unnecessary disease and improve wellbeing, it is paramount that orthodox medicine, herbal medicine and other therapies work together as a collective to reconnect ourselves to our bodies, our communities and our capacity to heal with a healthy understanding of illness and what it means to us. A healthcare practitioner, whether primary or complementary, must always act in the best interest of the patient.

Word count: 1096

Reference list


  • Ganora, L (2009) Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry, USA: Herbalchem Press
  • Griggs, B (1987) Green Pharmacy, A History of Herbal Medicine, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham Ltd.
  • Hoffman, D, (2003) Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, USA: Healing Arts Press