What Is It?
How Does It Work?
Health Benefits

How To Choose a Practitioner


What Is It? 

An herbalist is a practitioner who specializes in the use of medicinal plants, or herbs, to promote health and to prevent and treat illness. Herbal or botanical medicine has been the world's primary form of medical treatment since the beginning of time. And according to the World Health Organization, herbal medicine continues to be the most used form of medicine worldwide with 75% of the world's population relying on traditional healing practices, especially herbs. (1, 6) In Western countries, interest in herbal medicine, also known as “phytotherapy”, is now primarily concerned with evidence-based research regarding safety, efficacy, drug interactions and quality control as well as traditional usage. (2) Germany has led the way in these efforts: its Commission E is analogous to an FDA for herbs.  It has published monographs with safety and efficacy data for nearly 400 herbs. These were translated into English and expanded to include additional information on the most commonly used herbs in America in 2000. (7) 

Typically, herbalists follow the holistic healing philosophy of treating the whole person, rather than just a collection of symptoms. Believing that the body has the ability to heal itself with proper support, herbalists encourage individuals to play a large role in restoring their own health—not only with herbs but also with diet, exercise, and significant lifestyle changes. 

Herbalists are not qualified to diagnose disease. Rather they will likely discuss your physical status, your emotional and physical health, and also ask about the physical environment in which you live and work. A reputable herbalist should work in cooperation with, not in opposition to, conventional medicine, and will not hesitate to refer you to a doctor or another health professional for treatment when necessary. 

How Does It Work 

Herbalists descend from a number of different healing medical practices—Traditional Chinese, Native American, Indian Ayurvedic, Curanderismo, and contemporary Western herbalism, for example. The herbs and herb combinations used vary greatly between them as they are typically based on cultural beliefs and plants indigenous to the region from which they hail.  

Herbalists choose plant-based remedies that may be extracted or compounded from whole, or parts of, living or dried plants that contain minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, and other substances. These have real pharmacologic properties: numerous synthetic drugs are based on an “active ingredient” that was identified in an herb with known traditional uses. Herbalists believe that other unidentified substances in the plant may act synergistically to increase therapeutic effects or to minimize side effects. The part of the plant used, the soil in which it grows, and the season in which it is harvested all affect the content and proportion of active ingredients. Some plants that have therapeutic benefit when harvested in one season may be poisonous if harvested in another. Although herbs overall tend to be more subtle in their action than synthetic drugs, they can be very powerful. They should be respected and never used carelessly.  

Your initial visit to an herbalist will begin with questions about your current and past medical history, your diet and lifestyle, and any other factors related to your health concern. Many herbalists will ask about your spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health as well as your environment. Herbalists need to consider all of these factors together to determine a program for your optimal health. The herbalist will develop an integrated program addressing your health needs and concerns. The program should treat you as a whole person—not just someone with a specific health issue or disease. (1, 4) 

After a thorough consultation (and possibly some form of examination e.g. a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner might want to check your tongue and pulses), the herbalist will recommend or provide specific herbal formulations, which may be commercially prepared, compounded in an herbal pharmacy, or created from herbs the practitioner has personally grown or harvested from the woods and fields. As a reflection of their respect for the ecological importance and healing powers of plants, good herbalists believe in following ethical guidelines when harvesting wild herbs. 

Herbal remedies might be given to you in the form of capsules, tablets, ointments, essential oils, poultices, tinctures, extracts, or teas.

  • Herbal tinctures are prepared by steeping a plant with alcohol to extract the alcohol-soluble components into liquid form. Different tinctures can be mixed to optimize your prescription.

  • Herbal extracts are made with alcohol or glycerin and are more potent than tinctures

  • For herbal teas, there are two methods of preparation that may be used. With infusion, the light-weight leaves, stems, or flowers of the plant are steeped in boiled water for several minutes. With decoction, the tougher roots and bark of the plant are boiled in water for a longer period of time. (5)

As the potency of the different forms may vary considerably, it is important to note directions regarding the specific form and strength to be used in any recommendations. 

Health Benefits 

The effectiveness of herbal medicines for numerous conditions has been supported through research and clinical studies. A well-trained herbalist will have extensive knowledge of plant identification, the preparation and appropriate use of botanical medicines, safety and efficacy, and a thorough awareness of potential herb-herb or herb-drug interactions, so that the herbs you take will complement, not interfere with, any other medications you may need. The herbalist can assist with mild emotional challenges, continued maintenance of good health, detoxification, weight management, and returning the body back to a state of balance. (4)  

Specific indications for herb use are far too extensive to list here. The text, Rational Phytotherapy: A Reference Guide for Physicians and Pharmacists, now in its fifth edition, lists herbal preparations that are “reasonably certain” to provide health benefits that are safe, relatively low-cost, and natural. (8) Chapters list herbs for use in the Central Nervous System, Cardiovascular System, Respiratory System, Digestive System, Urinary Tract, Reproductive System, and Skin, as well as for trauma, increasing resistance to diseases, and immune stimulation. See the WholeHealthMD health condition and supplement articles for more information about specific herbs and uses. 

How to Choose a Practitioner 

Herbalists come from many traditions. It is rare for one herbalist to be familiar with the herbs and methods of prescribing in all of the healing systems; so you may want to decide in advance which system is most congruent with your personal philosophy. Herbalists go by a variety of titles, including herbal consultant, clinical herbalist, medical herbalist, professional herbalist, or registered herbalist. It's important to understand that rather than official titles or certifications, these are simply descriptive terms. The occupation of herbalist is not regulated federally or in any state, but professional organizations grant certification to members who have acquired a particular level of training.  Areas of concentration include growing herbs, "wildcrafting" or picking herbs, manufacturing herbal products, and instructing people about the use of herbs as medicines. (3)  

In addition to herbalists, naturopathic doctors (N.D.) typically receive some training in the use of herbs, and more and more conventional physicians are choosing to obtain additional training in this field with Continuing Medical Education courses. (For more information on specific types of practitioners, see the WholeHealthMD Reference Library entries on Ayurveda, Native American medicine, naturopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.) 

The primary organization supporting the development of professional examinations for herbalists is the American Herbalists Guild in Canton, Georgia. Although anyone who is interested in herbs may become a general member of the Guild, those who wish to hold the designation "professional member" should have at least 400 hours of clinical training and 1,200 hours of study. In addition, candidates for the Guild's professional status must also go through a stringent peer review process intended to validate their level of experience, education, and expertise. This process includes producing case studies, interviews, and references from established herbalists. However, since there are so many different herbal healing traditions (and the Guild's goal is to support them all), professional members are still evaluated on a highly individualized, case by case basis. 

Because the practice of herbal medicine is not licensed in the United States, the following are the best current credentials to look for when choosing an herbalist: 

  • Herbalist or Registered Herbalist, AHG (Professional Member, American Herbalists Guild)

  • N.D., AHG (Naturopathic Doctor, Professional Member, American Herbalists Guild)

  • MNIMH (Member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists)-British 


1. The American Herbalists Guild. Web page. Available at Accessed January 11, 2010.
2. Ben-Arye E, Lev E, Keshet Y, Schiff E. Integration of Herbal Medicine in Primary Care in Israel: A Jewish-Arab Cross-cultural Perspective. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Oct 28. [Epub ahead of print]
3. Natural Healers. Web page. Available at Accessed January 11, 2010.
4. Kemana Healing. Web page. Available at Accessed January 12, 2010
5. Medical Health Guide—Blending Conventional and Alternative Medicine. Web page. Available at Accessed January 11, 2010.
6. Ong CK, Bodeker G, Grundy C, Burford G, Shein K. WHO global atlas of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine. Map Volume 2005.
7. Blumenthal M, Ed. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs, Integrative Medicine Communications, Newton, MA, 2000.
8. Schulz V, Hänsel R, Blumenthal M, Tyler VE. Rational Phytotherapy: A Reference Guide for Physicians and Pharmacists, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2004.

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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