The American Herbalists Guild is a non-profit, educational organization that promotes clinical herbalism as a viable profession rooted in ethics, competency, diversity, and freedom of practice. The AHG supports access to herbal medicine for all and advocates excellence in herbal education.
The following questions and answers provide an overview of some of the most frequently asked questions.
WHAT IS AN HERB?
An herb is any plant or plant part used for its culinary or therapeutic value. Many of the world's herbal traditions also include fungi, mineral and animal substances in their practices.
WHAT IS HERBAL MEDICINE?
Herbal medicine is the art and science of using plants to support health and wellness. Practiced since the beginning of time, herbal medicine has persisted as the world's primary form of medicine with a written history dating back more than 5,000 years. According to the World Health Organization, large sections of the population in developing countries still rely on traditional practitioners and medicinal plants for their primary care. In American, 50 percent or more adults use herbal and dietary supplements on a regular basis, according to the National Institutes of Health.
HOW ARE HERBS DIFFERENT FROM PHARMACEUTICALS?
Most pharmaceutical drugs are synthesized chemicals engineered to target very specific biological processes. Herbal preparations are made with fresh or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated and active compounds known as phytochemicals. Over the last 30 years, science has demonstrated that the safety and effectiveness of herbs are often related to the synergy of the whole plant’s many constituents. Pharmaceutical manufacturers often focus on isolating one active constituent, or active compound, from a plant while herbalists and phytotherapists use the full spectrum of the plant (medicinal part of root flower, leaf, aerial part, etc.) to support healthy function of the body. In recent years, standardized herbs have been introduced to the marketplace and these products often isolate one active constituent, rather than using the whole plant part. Herbal practitioners vary in their opinion and use of standardized versus full spectrum herbs.
One of the challenges with pharmaceuticals is that the drugs can be difficult for the body to process, which in turn causes unwanted, adverse side effects, many of which may be as much of a problem as the original condition.
HOW IS HERBAL MEDICINE DIFFERENT FROM CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?
Herbal medicine takes an integrated or holistic approach to explore all aspects of an individual—physical, spiritual, mental, emotional and lifestyle—and acknowledges the innate healing power of the human body. Herbal, diet, and lifestyle recommendations focus on supporting the specific needs of each individual.
Conventional medicine is a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals diagnose and treat symptoms and diseases. This system has many names including allopathic medicine, biomedicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine. It should not be confused with Traditional Medicine, which refers to healing practices and herbal support that have been used with a high level of safety and efficacy for thousands of years. Conventional medicine employs modern techniques that could not be accomplished by Traditional Medicine, such as surgery to correct a cleft palate. While drugs and surgical techniques do save lives, conventional medicine seems to have lost its “whole person” perspective with a quick diagnosis and immediate intervention with pharmaceuticals that do not address the underlying health conditions and come with adverse effects, that, in some instances, lead to the use of additional pharmaceuticals.
The best medicine incorporates all the knowledge and tools available and starts with allowing the body to gently rebalance itself through dietary changes, stress reduction techniques and herbal therapies, followed by the intervention of pharmaceutical drugs and surgery when necessary.
One of the founding principles of the AHG is to “promote cooperation between herbal practitioners and other health care providers, integrating herbalism into community health care.”
WHAT IS AN HERBALIST?
Herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They may be native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters, herb farmers or even your grandmother or grandfather. Many have an intimate relationship with plants and their medicinal value. While herbalists approach their craft from various traditions, they share a common respect for all forms of life, especially the relationship between plants and humans. Herbalists apply traditional practices and evidence-based research of plants to support healthy function of the human body. A clinical herbalist is part of your wellness team, working collaboratively with you to support your health and wellness goals.
HOW CAN I KNOW IF A PARTICULAR HERB WILL WORK FOR ME?
Herbalism is an art, as well as a science. No one can predict which herb will work best for every individual. However, the traditional and historic uses of herbs combined with an evidence-based approach informs the efficacy and effectiveness of a particular herb. If unsure if an herb is right for you, seek the assistance of a trained clinical herbalist. To find an AHG Registered Herbalist in your area, visit the AHG National Directory.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR HERBS TO BE EFFECTIVE?
The success depends upon a variety of factors including how long the issue has existed, the severity, the dosage and mode of administration (tea, capsule, or tincture, for example), the quality of the herbs and how diligently recommendations are followed. Herbs may work in as few as 60 seconds when using a spoonful of herbal bitters to soothe digestion following a heavy meal, to 20 minutes when soaking in a bath with rosemary tea to relieve tension, to days, weeks, or months for tonics to build energy or resolve long-standing imbalances. Chronic conditions may take years to reverse.
HOW SAFE ARE HERBS?
The World Health Organization approaches the safety of herbal medicine from the premise “… that if the product has been traditionally used without demonstrated harm, no specific restrictive regulatory action should be undertaken unless new evidence demands a revised risk-benefit assessment.”
Researchers have found that many people mistakenly believe that products labeled as “natural” are safe. As an informed consumer, it is important to read product labels carefully and make sure you are purchasing from a reliable source. Check into an herbal manufacturer’s background to see how long they have been in business and whether they follow good manufacturing practices (cGMP).
The Food and Drug Administration investigates complaints about adverse effects linked to dietary supplements and issues consumer advisories when safety concerns are discovered.
Equally important is disclosing your use of any herbs, vitamins, or any other dietary supplements to your healthcare providers. Although a particular herb is considered safe, there is always the possibility of individual sensitivity. When trying an herb for the first time, use a small amount for the first few days and monitor for any sensitivity you may experience.
WHERE CAN I GET SAFETY INFORMATION?
There are several online references available for free or an annual subscription fee. However, if you are unsure about how to use a particular herb, seek professional advice from a Registered Herbalist.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Botanical Safety Handbook, Second Edition, available online by subscription or in hardcover print, provides relevant safety information from an herbalist’s perspective.
Free online tools
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) offers several free databases on pharmaceutical drugs and herbs at its Drug Portal at https://druginfo.nlm.nih.gov/drugportal/. Additional information is available on NLM's MedlinePlus Web site, which includes information on drugs, herbs, and supplements.
Subscription online tools
- American Botanical Council (ABC) is an independent, nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to providing accurate and reliable information for consumers, healthcare practitioners, researchers, educators, industry and the media.
- American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Botanical Safety Handbook, Second Edition is available online by subscription or in hardcover print.
- Natural Medicines (Formerly Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database) at https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com
- AHPA’s Botanical Safety Handbook, Second Edition, published 2013
- Herb, Nutrient, and Drug Interactions: Clinical Implications and Therapeutic Strategies, by Mitchell Bebel Stargrove, Jonathan Treasure and Dwight L. McKee, published 2008
- Essential Guide to Herbal Safety, by Simon Mills and Kerry Bones, published 2004
HOW IS THE HERBAL INDUSTRY REGULATED?
In the United States, herbal products are categorized as dietary supplements for regulatory purposes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have enforcement programs to protect consumers from false and misleading claims about the safety and benefits of products marketed as dietary supplements. Both agencies have authority over the marketing of these products.
While the FTC focuses mainly on advertising and marketing, the FDA regulates the manufacture and labeling of herbal products and has legal authority over assuring that all herbal products follow current good manufacturing processes (cGMP) and are accurately labeled with respect to ingredients and claims. Labels include not only what is on the physical label but on an herbalist’s website, any literature, handouts, or sales sheets. Recent FDA and FTC warnings that were sent to natural product manufacturers also included a review of all social media, including “likes” and customer comments.
There are also trade associations that require member companies to adhere to specific codes of ethics and conduct their own testing programs, including the American Herbal Products Association.
HOW DO HERBALISTS PRACTICE?
A well-trained clinical herbalist is usually educated in both the traditional as well as scientific, evidence-based approach to understanding the way herbs work, how the body responds, and what is necessary to support good health. Most visits to an herbalist begin with a consultation about your past and current health history, your dietary and lifestyle practices, and other factors related to your health. The herbalist, with your involvement, should develop an integrated program that addresses your specific wellness goals and concerns. You should leave your herbal consultation feeling heard and regarded as a whole person, not as a symptom or disease.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO HERBALISM?
Various herbal traditions have developed worldwide. A number of different traditions include folkloric herbal practices, clinical Western herbal medicine, naturopathic medicine, practitioners of Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (Ayurveda), or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and numerous indigenous and Native American herbal traditions. Everyone should find the herbal practitioner most appropriate for them.
Traditional Western herbalists base their work on traditional folk medicine or historical uses of herbs in addition to modern scientific research. Backgrounds may include folk, indigenous or Native American, eclectic, wise woman, earth-centered, or other traditions. They may be trained through traditional or non-traditional methods such as apprenticeships, schools, or self-study. Most educational programs cover the traditional uses of herbs, the basic sciences of botany, biochemistry, nutrition and anatomy and physiology as well as determining the right herb or combination of herbs to support the individual. Common titles given to Western clinical herbalists include RH (AHG), Registered Herbalist, American Herbalists Guild; MCPP, Member, College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy; FNIMH, Fellow, National Institute of Medical Herbalists; MNIMH Member, National Institute of Medical Herbalists; FNHAA, Fellow, Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia. [in 2016 changed name from National Herbalists Association of Australia]
TCM is the second-largest medical system in the world after Western herbalism. TCM doctors go through extensive training in theory, practice, herbal therapy, and acupuncture. Several states license acupuncturists, and many consider them primary health care providers. Their titles may include L.Ac., Licensed Acupuncturist; OMD, Doctor of Oriental Medicine; or Dip. C.H. (NCCA), Diplomate of Chinese Herbology from the National Certification Commission for the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India and Nepal, is the third largest herbal medicine system. Ayurvedic doctors treat more than 80 percent of the people on the Indian subcontinent and go through extensive training that can last as long as 12 years. Some use the title M.D. (Ayur) when they come to English speaking countries, and those who have passed the accreditation process of the American Ayurvedic Association are given the title D.Av. Diplomate in Ayurvedic Health Sciences.
Naturopathic Medicine integrates traditional natural therapeutics with modern scientific medical diagnoses and Western medical standards of care. All licensed naturopathic physicians (N.D.) have received full medical training at an accredited medical university in North America. In addition to their advanced knowledge about herbal therapeutics, in many states licensed naturopaths can also act as primary health care providers.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A QUALIFIED HERBALIST?
First and foremost, the relationship between a clinical herbalist and a client should begin with clearly articulated goals and responsibilities. Every client should be fully informed of the experience, training and services provided by the practitioner. Similarly, the herbalist should clearly understand the goals and desires of the client. Together they collaborate to determine if the experience and services provided meet the needs of the client.
For help in finding a qualified herbalist, contact your local health food or herb store for referrals, ask for recommendations from people you trust, or visit the AHG National Directory to find an AHG Registered Herbalist in your area.
WHAT IS A REGISTERED HERBALIST WITH THE AMERICAN HERBALIST GUILD?
Founded in 1989 as a non-profit, educational organization to represent the goals and voices of clinical herbalists, the AHG is the only peer-review organization in the United States for professional herbalists specializing in the medicinal use of plants.
Herbalists from all traditions with sufficient education and clinical experience who demonstrate advanced knowledge in the medicinal use of plants and who pass the AHG credentialing process (a careful review by a multidisciplinary admissions board) receive professional status and the title, Registered Herbalist (RH), AHG.
The AHG has a code of ethics, continuing education program and specific standards for becoming a Registered Herbalist. The AHG’s roster of Registered Herbalists includes some of the most respected herbal authorities in the United States and abroad. Contact the American Herbalists Guild for a free brochure or find a registered herbalist in the AHG National Directory of Registered Herbalists.