What Is an Herbalist?

Herbalists, also sometimes called herbal practitioners and licensed herbalists, are specially trained in the field of herbal medicine. An herbalist uses plants and other natural substances to improve health, promote healing, and prevent and treat illness.

Herbal medicine, also called herbalism, botanical medicine, or phytomedicine, has been used for thousands of years. In Western civilizations, including the United States, herbal medicine is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 80 percent of people worldwide use herbal remedies as part of their overall health care.

Herbalists use the seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, and flowers of plants called herbs or botanicals for medicinal purposes. In the United States, herbal products are classified as dietary supplements, rather than drugs or medicines (pharmaceuticals). Labeling standards and health claims for dietary supplements, including herbal remedies, are set by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which was passed in 1994, and are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When used as directed by a licensed herbalist, most herbal supplements are safe and do not cause adverse side effects. However, many herbs and herbal products interact with medicines, with other dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals, and even with certain foods. Some herbs and herbal products are marketed and sold without undergoing extensive testing and may contain ingredients that are not listed on the label and may not be safe. Therefore, it is important to purchase herbal products from a reputable practitioner, to speak with a qualified health care provider before using any dietary supplement, and to notify your physician(s) about all CAM practices, including the use of herbs.

Some herbalists provide primary health care and some serve as consultants as part of a health care team. Herbalists take a holistic approach to medicine, which means that they focus on comprehensive health care that addresses the physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and economic needs of the patient.

Many herbalists receive their training through classes, workshops, and apprenticeships conducted by other herbalists. Naturopathic and chiropractic colleges, schools of acupuncture, and some medical colleges also offer classes in herbal medicine. Most herbal medicine programs include training in traditional uses for herbs, basic medical science (e.g., biochemistry, nutrition, anatomy), and diagnosis and treatment.

Certain herbalists (called herbal farmers and wild crafters) grow, harvest, and process herbs into teas, syrups, and other herbal products. Herbal preparations include tinctures (extracts from fresh herbs), compresses (herbal mixtures that are applied with pressure), poultices (herbal mixtures that are applied topically), and salves (medicinal ointments made from plants and herbs). In many cases, the success of herbal medicine depends on how closely the patient follows his or her treatment plan.