Plants have had a long history of medicinal use and are still in high demand around the globe. Plants that are used in whole or in part for their therapeutic properties are called botanicals and products that are made from plants are sometimes phytomedicines. Medicinal herbs are considered a subset of botanicals. All of the plants and herbs have common and scientific names.
Products made from plants are sold in many forms: fresh or dried; liquid or solid extracts; tablets, capsules, powders; tea bags; and other forms. For example, fresh ginger root is often found in the produce section; dried ginger root is sold packaged in tea bags, capsules, or tablets; and liquid preparations are also made from ginger root and sold. When ginger and other botanicals are manufactured and sold in tinctures, capsules, or tablets, they are considered dietary supplements and are subject to DSHEA and other state and federal regulations. Botanicals are also sold in topical oils, creams, and salves, which are typically found in the Health & Body Care (HBC) area of a natural product store.
Herbs, a subset of botanical products, are sold as single (individual) herbs and also in many combinations. The combinations can include multiple herbs, and may also include combinations of vitamins, minerals, and other specialty ingredients. Usually, these combinations are designed to provide help for a variety of health conditions and support for various systems, functions, and organs of the body. The categories of combination products range from gender and age-related to mood and wellbeing; from joints and ligament support to cardiovascular and urinary support and many more.
Botanical raw materials originate from many different places around the world. Cultivated herbs that are farmed for mass production may be genetically modified and are usually sprayed with insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides. They may also be fumigated with sulfur dioxide to prevent spoilage caused by bugs and mold. Exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause a reaction in people who have sulfur or similar sensitivities to fumigated herbs. Most of the raw materials botanical manufacturers produce for natural product stores, however, are grown organically. If they are grown in the United States they are subject to national organic standards and may be certified; if the raw material is sourced from outside the United States, the manufacturer is responsible for verification of organic standards as touted by the supplier. All finished products must have organic ingredients certified by agencies approved by the USDA in order to use the USDA Organic seal.
Why this matters:
Recent scandals regarding the legitimacy and safety of raw material from China that is labeled as organic have caused consumers to become more focused on the sources of the raw materials contained in their nutritional supplements. In addition, there is growing awareness and concern about GMOs that may be found in nutritional supplements and herbs. Many natural product customers want organic or wild-crafted herbs and will look for products with the organic seal or Wild-Crafted language on the bottle.
The third source of herbs and plants are those that are picked from their natural or indigenous habitat. These are called wild-crafted herbs. Although they are not grown or cultivated by men, their habitats can be damaged during the harvesting. Herbs that are labeled Responsibly Wild Crafted, however, use sources that adhere to best practices for harvesting wild herbs including:
- Assuming responsibility for what is harvested
- Making positive identification of plants before they are gathered
- Investigating the health of the ecosystem and the plant population before harvest
- Not gathering more than needed
- Harvesting only in appropriate habitats, never in vulnerable environments
- Wearing proper clothing and using the correct tools when harvesting; minimizing any injury to the site
- Obtaining written permission from the landowner before entering the land, OR harvesting on the wildcrafter's own land
Why this matters:
If a manufacturer uses the word standardized to mean their manufacturing procedures are the same for all their products, they are using the term incorrectly. The correct use of the term, especially when it is printed on the product label, tells the customer that the amount of the active ingredient in the product is a consistent amount in all the products regardless of the source of the raw materials.
Since the sources of medicinal botanicals can vary from place to place and year to year, many herbal manufacturers use a process called standardization to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products. This process involves measuring the number of chemicals or compounds (known as markers) that are believed to be the active agents and ensuring that each product has the same amount or concentration of these active ingredients. This voluntary quality control process is not required by any legal or regulatory agency. As a result, the standardized process may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
There are hundreds of known botanicals in use around the world. The following list of forty medicinal herbs and botanicals that were the highest sellers in the United States in 2012, the latest year of available data, ranked in order of highest to lowest.
- Cranberry – known for helping to prevent Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs).
- Garlic – used for centuries for a wide-ranging array of health issues; primarily known for the prevention of many conditions related to the heart and blood system.
- Saw palmetto - best-known use in decreasing symptoms of an enlarged prostate and treating certain types of prostate infections. It is also sometimes used, in combination with other herbs, to treat prostate cancer.
- Soy – is found in a wide range of forms from tofu to soy sauce, from soy milk drinks to vegetarian alternatives for meats and dairy. Some people are sensitive to soy and should avoid consuming it. Soy supplements are most widely used by women for relief of symptoms of menopause, and to moderate high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and helping in the prevention of heart and blood vessel disease, among other disorders.
- Ginkgo – (Ginkgo biloba) is most often used for memory disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and for conditions that seem to be due to reduced blood flow in the brain, especially in older people, including memory loss, headache, ringing in the ears, vertigo, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and hearing disorders.
- Milk thistle – sometimes used for liver problems including cirrhosis, jaundice, hepatitis, and gallbladder disorders. Some claim milk thistle may also provide heart benefits by lowering cholesterol levels, helping people who have Type 2 diabetes and cirrhosis, and reducing the growth of cancer cells in breast, cervical, and prostate cancers.
- Black cohosh root – now most commonly used to help relieve the symptoms of menopause including headaches, hot flashes, mood changes, sleep problems, heart palpitations, night sweats, and vaginal dryness.
- Echinacea – is widely used to fight infections, especially the common cold and other upper respiratory infections particularly to make the symptoms less severe.
- St. John's Wort – is most commonly used for depression and conditions that sometimes go along with depression such as anxiety, tiredness, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.
- Ginseng - There are two main types of ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). The different types have different benefits. In traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng is considered less stimulating than the Asian variety. Uses for ginseng include as an immune system booster, to improve mood and endurance, and to support treatments for cancer, heart disease, fatigue, high blood pressure, and a number of other common conditions.
- Valerian root – has been used as a sedative in Europe and Asia. Many people throughout the world use it to treat insomnia and anxiety.
- Green tea – is an unfermented tea rich in polyphenols. It is consumed as an extract to help improve mental alertness and thinking. It is also used to help with a wide range of health issues including stomach disorders, cancer prevention, Crohn’s disease, heart disease, and others. Green tea extract may also be used in an ointment for genital warts.
- Evening primrose – is a source of essential fatty acids (EFAs) and is widely used by women for healthy pregnancies and deliveries and to help reduce symptoms of PMS. People may also use evening primrose oil for chronic fatigue, skin disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis among other diseases. Evening primrose may also be used in soaps and cosmetics
- Bilberry – is a plant widely used for eyesight and treatment of several eye conditions such as cataracts. It may also be used for other conditions of the heart and blood vessels and chronic fatigue syndrome, gout, gastrointestinal disorders, and urinary tract infections.
- Horny goat weed – has been a traditional remedy in China for centuries. It’s used for low libido, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, pain, and other conditions.
- Ginger – is an herb used as a spice in cooking, a fragrance in soaps and cosmetics, and as medicine in dried, powdered, liquid, or oil forms. It is commonly used for motion sickness and prevention of upset stomach, gas, colic, and nausea. It may also be used by some people for pain relief from arthritis, chest pain, low back pain, and stomach pain.
- Grape seed – Grape seed extract is derived from the ground-up seeds of red wine grapes. It is commonly used for a number of cardiovascular conditions; may help with a type of poor circulation (chronic venous insufficiency) and high cholesterol; and also reduces swelling caused by injury and helps with eye disease related to diabetes.
- Aloe vera – has been primarily used in a gel form including psoriasis, seborrhea, dandruff, minor burns, skin abrasions, and radiation-induced skin injuries. Aloe juice consumed by mouth is a powerful laxative and seems to help people with diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels. Other uses of oral and topical aloe vera have been studied, ranging from cancer prevention to diabetes and helping to lower cholesterol.
- Cascara sagrada – is used as a laxative for constipation, as well as a treatment for gallstones, liver ailments, and cancer. Some people use it as a “bitter tonic.”
- Hawthorn – is used for diseases of the heart and blood vessels such as congestive heart failure (CHF), chest pain, and irregular heartbeat. It is also used to treat both low blood pressure and high blood pressure, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis), and high cholesterol.
- Horse chestnut – Horse chestnut seed and leaf are used for treating varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and swollen veins (phlebitis). The seed is also used for diarrhea, fever, and enlarged prostate. The extract of horse chestnut is used to treat a blood circulation problem called chronic venous insufficiency.
- Cayenne – is also known as capsicum is a red pepper or chili pepper. It is used for various problems with digestion including upset stomach, intestinal gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, and cramps; and for conditions of the heart and blood vessels including poor circulation, excessive blood clotting, high cholesterol, and preventing heart disease. A particular form of capsicum causes intense eye pain and other unpleasant effects when it comes in contact with the face. This form is used in self-defense pepper sprays.
- Elderberry – is widely used for the prevention of the flu and for boosting the immune system. It may also be used as a preventative for hay fever, and for relief of sinus pain, back and leg pain, nerve pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Olive leaf – is primarily used as a supplement for treating viral, bacterial, and other infections including flu, common cold, herpes, shingles, and Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV).
- Spirulina – is also known as blue-green algae and is used as a source of dietary protein, B-vitamins, and iron, and for treatment or prevention of ADHD, hay fever, stress, fatigue, anxiety, PMS, and other health issues, including weight loss.
- Alfalfa – is used for kidney conditions, bladder and prostate conditions, and to increase urine flow. It is also used for high cholesterol, asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, upset stomach, and a bleeding disorder called thrombocytopenic purpura. People also take alfalfa as a source of vitamins A, C, E, and K4; and minerals calcium, potassium, phosphorous, and iron.
- Kava kava – has been used to calm anxiety, stress, and help treat insomnia. The plant is controversial and has safety concerns regarding liver damage. As a result, it is been banned from Canada and some countries in Europe.
- Yohimbe – is most widely used to treat sexual dysfunction and sexual problems caused by various medications.
- Kelp (Laminaria) – is a type of seaweed that contains iodine, iron, and potassium and may be included in specialty supplements. Because it contains an overabundance of iodine, it may have harmful effects.
- Damiana leaf – has been used historically as an aphrodisiac and may also be used for headaches, depression, nervous stomach, constipation, and prevention of bedwetting.
- Dandelion – is mostly used to increase urine production, decrease swelling (inflammation), and as a laxative to increase bowel movements.
- Dong Quai root – is mostly used for menstrual cramps, PMS, and menopause symptoms.
- Red clover – is used for lowering cholesterol and for controlling hot flashes and other menopause symptoms in women.
- Pycnogenol – is a U.S. registered trademark name for a product derived from the pine bark of a tree. It is primarily used for treating circulation problems and for preventing disorders of the heart and blood vessels. It may also be used as an anti-aging supplement for skin health, athletic endurance, and improving male fertility.
- Feverfew – is known as an effective treatment for migraine headaches and fevers. It may also help ease diseases like arthritis.
- Barley – is used for lowering blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and for promoting weight loss. It is also used for digestive complaints including diarrhea, stomach pain, and inflammatory bowel conditions.
- Maca – is often called Peruvian Ginseng due to the stimulating qualities that are similar to ginseng. It is used for “tired blood” (anemia); chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS); and enhancing energy, stamina, athletic performance, memory, and fertility. Women use maca for female hormone imbalance, menstrual problems, and symptoms of menopause.
- Licorice root – is most often used for digestive system complaints including stomach ulcers, heartburn, colic, and inflammation of the lining of the stomach. Licorice is sometimes used along with the herbs Panax ginseng and Bupleurum falcatum to improve the function of the adrenal glands, especially in people who have taken steroid drugs long-term.
- Gotu kola – is an herb commonly used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Along with other uses, it is most often used to treat bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections such as urinary tract infection (UTI), shingles, leprosy, cholera, syphilis, the common cold, and flu.
- Eyebright – is most often used to treat swollen (inflamed) nasal passages, allergies, hay fever, common cold, bronchial conditions, and sinusitis. When used properly, eyebright may reduce inflammation in the eye caused by blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelash follicles) and conjunctivitis (inflammation or infection of the membrane lining the eyelids). It can be used as an eyewash, as eye drops, or plant infusions took internally for ophthalmic use. There are risks associated with using eyebright topically as eyebright solutions can be susceptible to contamination.
 This list was published by the American Botanical Council, a respected non-profit education and lobby organization active in the natural product industry for almost 50 years