What is phytotherapy?
Phytotherapy is the use of plants or herbs to manage health conditions. It also refers to substances that come from plants or herbs. Medicinal plants and herbs are a form of complementary medicine. These are therapies that you can receive alongside traditional Western medicine.
“Phytopharmaceuticals,” “phytomedicines,” herbal medicines and botanicals are other terms often used for plant- or herb-based medicines. Phytomedicines are sold in the U.S. over the counter as dietary supplements. As such, they have not undergone rigorous scientific studies of effectiveness, safety or quality. In some other countries, particularly in Europe, phytomedicines are more regulated and are available by prescription.
You should never take phytomedicines without talking to your healthcare provider first.
What does phytotherapy treat?
Phytotherapies have been historically used by people to treat a wide range of acute or chronic health conditions. These may include anything from musculoskeletal pain to memory loss.
There aren’t many studies about the effectiveness of phytotherapy. But researchers are looking into the risks and benefits of phytotherapies. They’re trying to find out how phytomedicines might help disease prevention and symptom management.
It’s also important to note that phytomedicines aren’t closely regulated in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t consider phytomedicines to be drugs. Instead, the FDA considers them a type of food. So there aren’t strict safety or quality regulations about dosages or concentrations of ingredients in phytomedicines.
How do phytotherapies work?
Phytotherapies may affect your body’s physiology in different ways. Many non-human studies have tried to understand possible mechanisms by which phytotherapies affect people. Some may impact brain chemistry, the immune system and appetite.
Another way that phytotherapies may work is by preventing damage to your cells. That damage can lead to major diseases, such as cancer and dementia. Researchers are studying how certain chemicals in plants, called phytochemicals, may be able slow or prevent this damage from happening.
What are some examples of phytotherapies?
Examples of phytotherapies researchers are looking at include:
- Beta-sitosterol (a micronutrient found in plants) may help with skin problems, wound healing and heart health.
- Fish oils with omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Ginger may help relieve symptoms of nausea and vomiting, though research is ongoing about the safety of ginger for pregnant people who have morning sickness.
- Green tea might help fight cancerous tumors or improve diabetes-related retinopathy. Both diseases have ties to abnormal blood vessel growth. Green tea may also prevent the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis).
- Probiotics may help relieve gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms associated with ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic diarrhea or pouchitis.
- Soy products may help lower high cholesterol.
What forms do phytotherapies come in?
Phytomedicines come in lots of different forms. You might receive one as a tincture (concentrated extract), pill or capsule you swallow or a tea you drink. They can also come as ointments or compresses that you apply directly to your skin.
How effective are phytotherapies?
Research studies about the effectiveness of phytotherapies have had mixed results. There are many factors that can affect the quality of phytomedicines, including:
- Amount of chemicals in the plant.
- How the plant was harvested and stored.
- Ingredients added to the phytomedicine.
- Processing of the plant.
- Species and parts of the plants used.
What are the risks of phytotherapies?
Phytomedicines may come with risks. Plant- or herb-based medicines may:
- Be toxic and make you sick.
- Contain dangerous substances such as heavy metals or harmful bacteria.
- Increase your risk of certain diseases.
- Interact with other medications and cause dangerous side effects.
- Not have clear dosage instructions or ingredients.
- Reduce the effectiveness of other medications.
- Trigger allergies, including dangerous allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis.
Talk to your healthcare provider before taking phytomedicines. Research shows that many people take herbal supplements or phytomedicines and don’t report them to their healthcare provider. It’s important for your care team to know all the medications and supplements you take. This helps them create a safe, effective treatment plan.
What drug interactions should I watch out for?
There’s limited research about the potential for interactions between phytotherapies and drugs. So, it’s important to talk with your provider about taking any plant- or herb-based medicines. It’s possible that some phytotherapies may reduce the effectiveness of or interact with:
- Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Birth control pills.
- Blood pressure drugs.
- Calcium channel blockers.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
If you take any type of phytomedicine, contact your healthcare provider right away if you experience:
- Chest pain.
- Headache that lasts.
- Heart palpitations.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
- Skin rash (contact dermatitis).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Phytotherapy is a complementary medicine practice. It uses substances from plants or herbs to treat or prevent diseases. Researchers are still studying the effectiveness of phytomedicines, but some research is promising. Phytotherapies can cause side effects, interact with your current medications or make other medications less effective. Talk to your healthcare provider before trying any form of phytotherapy.
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