The last 10 years has seen a striking increase in the popularity of herbal medicines in Europe and North America. The market in Europe is estimated to be worth over US $3 billion. In particular, traditional Chinese medicine has become very popular. Most British high streets now feature a Chinese herbal clinic among the shops. Each year China exports over 150,000 tons of herbal medicines worth US$500 million to satisfy global demand.
Ayurveda has also become more popular in the West, but to a much smaller degree. This might be because Ayurvedic treatments are holistic and are not just based on medicines. For example, purification treatments and changes in diet and lifestyle must be used alongside medicines to conform to the Ayurvedic system.
In the West herbal medicine is sometimes viewed as complementary medicine, working closely with Western medicine. Since Western and herbal medicines may interact with each other to cause adverse reactions, it is always advisable to notify one's doctor about all medications being taken.
Safety and efficacy
Plants contain a wide range of potent chemical compounds, many of which have evolved to protect plants against pests and predators. Some plants and plant compounds have been demonstrated to be effective against illness. Examples include the Madagascar rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) against childhood leukaemia, arnica (Arnica montana) for bruises, and Aloe vera for wound-healing.
However, it is important to note that some plant compounds are poisonous and that some are ineffective. Although herbal medicines are 'natural', this does not necessarily mean they are safe. Consumers should be aware that the vast majority of herbal medicines have not undergone intensive laboratory testing for safety and efficacy compared with Western medicines; neither are they subject to the same monitoring or government regulation.
Information on herbal medicines on the web is often unreliable. The guides linked from this page are from independent and authoritative sources. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency offers excellent advice on using herbal medicines and over the next few years a new EU Directive on Traditional Herbal Products aims to introduce sweeping improvements in the quality and safety of herbal medicines.
As with herbal medicines themselves, the practice of herbal medicine is only lightly regulated. Although the process of statutory regulation of herbal practitioners in the UK is now underway, in the meantime, consumers will need to establish the credentials of a herbalist or Ayurvedic practitioner themselves. The website of the European Herbal Practitioners Association gives guidance on finding a qualifed practitioner.