Modern Herbal Medicine

The origin of modern, pharmaceutical medicine is rooted in herbal medicine, the use of plants and herbs for healing purposes. Hundreds of modern drugs come from plant sources, and only a hundred years ago, some of the most useful and well-known drugs were derived from plant extracts. Modern-day aspirin is derived from willow bark, and morphine and other opiate derivative drugs originate from the opium poppy, a plant native to the middle east.

Pharmaceutical companies continue to manufacture new drugs from the discovery of useful plant sources, and some of the largest drug manufacturers are part of large-scale screenings for pharmacologic herbs and plants. The practice of creating medicines from plant-based extracts and sources is called herbalism and has been around for hundreds of years.

What is herbalism?

In the U.S., consumer spending on herbal products exceeds 5 billion dollars per year, and the majority of sales come from over-the-counter medicines and supplements. Modern-day herbalism is based on matching an herb to a particular set of symptoms or illness. For example, St. John’s Wort is used as an OTC supplement to treat low-grade depression symptoms. People may take valerian root for sleep issues, and white kidney bean extract is used to promote weight loss. CBD and cannabis-derived products are becoming increasingly popular for treating a variety of ailments, aches, and pains. For the modern consumer, hundreds of herbal remedies are sold in retail stores, online, and in pharmacies.

icon box image

One of the oldest forms of herbalism is Chinese herbalism, which is still practiced today. Chinese herbal traditions have been around for millennia, and are based on the traditional Chinese theory of Qi energy, and Yin and Yang. Yin refers to an herbal medicines ability to “cool” an ailment, while yang is for stimulation. Qi energy must be balanced between these two forces. When Qi energy is unbalanced, adverse physical and mental symptoms occur. Herbal remedies and other practices are used in traditional Chinese medicine to bring the yin and the yang into balance.

Modern Western herbalism doesn’t recognize qi energy or the balance of yin and yang. Instead, Western herbalism emphasizes the impact that certain herbs have on the body and the herbs ability to alleviate specific symptoms or deficiencies. Herbs are used to reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system, improve hemostasis, and more.

Herbalism differs from conventional pharmacology in several distinct ways. Herbal medicine uses whole plant extracts, or plant extracts in a combination of synthetic compounds. In herbal medical practices, diagnosis is based on treating the underlying cause of a patient’s ailment. Herbal medical practitioners also focus their treatment methods on chronic conditions, and on improving the patient’s overall well-being, instead of eliminating a single symptom. The most significant risk posed to patients who try herbal medicine is that plant extracts can sometimes interact with conventional medication.

During the course of treatment with herbal medicine, a practitioner will look into the patient’s medical history and perform a thorough physical exam. Also, herbal practitioners pay close attention to the patient’s daily processes and functioning, such as their ability to sleep, their appetite, if they have problems with digestion, etc. An herbal practitioner will prescribe herbal remedies that are customized to the patient and their particular needs and ailments. Most herbal medicines are taken as teas or tinctures, but sometimes ointments or herbal capsules are used. Practitioners will also work closely with their patients to improve any lifestyle or diet choices that may be impacting their health.

Popular Herbal-Based Medicines


The famous pharmaceutical company Bayer invented aspirin over 100 years ago. Today, aspirin is used to treat pain, inflammation, and fever effectively. The main ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid and derives from willow bark. The ancient Egyptians discovered the analgesic benefits of willow bark thousands of years ago. The famous ancient philosopher Hippocrates was said to use willow bark to reduce back pain and fever.

It took hundreds of years for willow bark to transition from a natural, herbal remedy to a patented medical drug. The first use of willow bark as prescription medication is thought to have occurred in the mid-eighteenth century. Willow bark was ground into a powder form, and dissolved in water. Patients were instructed to drink the mixture ever four hours while fever persisted.

As the centuries progressed, discoveries on willow bark’s therapeutic effectiveness increased. In the early nineteenth century, willow bark was purified into an extract called “salicin.” It was then further developed into salicylic acid, and its chemical structure was studied. From there, the acid was produced on a massive, industrial scale and brought to market.

Although salicylic acid at this time was incredibly effective for pain relief and fever reduction, the drug had many severe, adverse side effects. It had an offensive taste and irritated the stomach. A chemist from Bayer drug company decided to experiment with the acid’s chemical structure to reduce the side effects and give the drug a less offensive taste. In 1897, the modern acetylsalicylic acid that consumers enjoy today was discovered. On an interesting side note, Bayer was also experimenting with the drug heroin at this time. Heroin was made by diluting morphine, another drug with an herbal background, with the same acetyls used in aspirin. At the time, heroin was intended to be a non-addictive form of morphine and used to treat coughs. Bayer was later embarrassed to learn that heroin was a faster-acting form of morphine, and more addictive.


Digoxin is a pharmaceutical drug used to support healthy blood pressure levels and prevent atrial fibrillation and irregular heartbeat. Early in its history, digoxin was extracted from the foxglove plant in the 1930s. The doctor who created digoxin credited his findings to foxglove, or digitalis, trials documented from the late 1700s. At that time, foxglove extract was used to treat fluid retention, called dropsy, that is associated with the risk of heart failure. Unfortunately, foxglove extract comes with several potentially dangerous side effects, including vomiting, vision disturbances, and a slowed pulse.

Digoxin is still used today, but it has a slim safety margin. The dose that is effective for treating heart problems is exceptionally close to the dose known to cause adverse side effects. A correct, steady dose of digoxin is effective at decreasing heart palpitations and can also reverse some of the symptoms of heart failure. But going over that dose can cause confusion, depression, and even worsen heart palpitations. It is one of the few prescription medications in use today that also has an antidote prescription for people who experience toxic levels of digoxin, called DigiFab.


Quinine is a prescription antiparasitic drug that is used to treat malaria. In the late 1820s, quinine was isolated from cinchona bark. Cinchona bark had been used since the early 1600s to treat malaria. Quinine is an alkaloid, which is a naturally-occurring chemical compound. It is not fully understood yet how quinine works as a medicine for malaria treatment.

For centuries, malaria has been one of humanity’s biggest killers. Almost half of the entire world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria. The female Anopheles mosquito carries the parasite, which causes severe, life-threatening fever, abdominal distress, anemia, muscle pains, convulsions, coma, and death.

The World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines includes quinine, and it is one of the world’s safest, most effective herbal medicine for combating malaria infections.


Morphine is a powerful and addictive medicine used to alleviate acute pain. It derives from the seeds of the opium poppy. The first recorded instance of opium cultivation dates back to 3400 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia or modern-day Southwest Asia. As people learned of the power of the opium poppy for pain relief and the extracts ability to induce euphoria, demand for opium increased. Many countries in lower Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and Assyria began to grow, cultivate, and sell the plant. Trade between these regions and China sparked the growth and cultivation of opium in China and eventually sparked the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century.

Morphine was extracted from opium resin in 1803 for the first time. This extract is almost ten times as potent as processed opium. Many modern, prescription drugs also derive from the opium poppy, but morphine was one of the first.

The drug wasn’t widely used in the U.S. until the Civil War when hypodermic needles were invented and mass produced. These morphine kits were sent to the battlefield, and the hospitals and were incredibly effective for relieving injured soldier’s pain. At the time, addiction was not understood. Many soldiers who survived the battlefield returned home addicted to morphine. Today, it is considered one of the most effective drugs for pain relief, and new pain relievers are measured against the morphine standard.

Interactions with herbal supplements and medications are well-researched. For patients who want to try an herbal medication, it is critical that they speak to their primary care physician before going to an herbal practitioner. For patients who take conventional medicines, they should take herbal preparations with caution, and be sure to obtain herbal remedies from an experienced practitioner who is knowledgeable about conventional pharmacology and drug interactions.

Last updated May 22 2019