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Many of us swear by herbal remedies like Echinacea and St John's Wort... but do they really work?

With Herbal Medicine Week under way, Lisa Salmon asks a prominent pharmacist whether such treatments actually do any good and if they’re safe

Herbal remedies have been the foundation of healthcare throughout history, and many modern drugs are derived from plants.

But while sometimes only prescribed drugs and medical treatments are suitable, the British Herbal Medicine Association (BHMA) points out that even today, herbs can be ideal complements to modern medicines.

It's estimated that more than a third of us regularly use traditional herbal medicines to treat minor ailments, such as coughs and colds, back pain, sleep problems and stress.

Do herbal medicines work?

Some studies have found that certain traditional herbal remedies can have a beneficial effect. Researchers from King's College London, for example, examined traditional Indian diabetes treatments and cancer treatments used in China and Thailand, and found they had useful properties. In the case of diabetes, extracts from the curry leaf tree were found to have positive effects in helping regulate the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

Another King's study found 'promising activity' against lung cancer cells from certain Eastern plants, particularly the Thai aquatic weed Ammannia baccifera and the Chinese plant Illicium verum or star anise.

Conversely, while ginkgo biloba has been said to enhance memory and help treat dementia, several US studies have found it has no effect. And although garlic is thought to help lower cholesterol, a 2007 Stanford University study found it made no significant difference. Much of the evidence for the effectiveness of herbal medicines is anecdotal, and complementary medicine experts say full clinical trials need to be carried out to confirm or refute any benefits.

Are herbal medicines safe?

It's important to remember that just because something's available without prescription or is 'natural', doesn't automatically make it safe. A recent survey found 58% of respondents believed herbal products were safe because they're 'natural', but some can actually have harmful side-effects.

St John's Wort, for example, can stop the contraceptive pill working and also makes the asthma-relieving drug aminophylline less effective, while ginkgo and ginseng are known to interfere with the blood-thinning drug warfarin.

So if you're taking any other medications or have ongoing health problems, it's important to seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist.

And don't be tempted to self-diagnose and treat symptoms that may need to be investigated.

As the BHMA advises: "It is always wise to check with your health professional if any symptom is severe or lasts for longer than a few days."

In 2011, a scheme designed to guarantee the quality of herbal medicines in the UK was launched by the government regulator, the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The THR (Traditional Herbal Registration) scheme covers herbal medicines used for a wide range of conditions suitable for self-medication.

Although THR medicines haven't undergone rigorous clinical trials like synthetic drugs, they've been judged by experts to be safe.

The manufacturers also have to prove their products have been made to strict standards and contain a consistent and clearly marked dose.

"The THR scheme ensures people have access to herbal medicines that are safe and of good quality, and that have information on how to use them correctly," says the MHRA.

"People should only buy over-the-counter herbal medicines they know have met safety standards... THR products are assessed on the basis of their traditional use as herbal medicinal products and while evidence of safety is required to obtain registration, evidence of efficacy is not."

Consumers can tell if a herbal medicine is registered by looking for the THR number, and usually a logo, on the packaging. THR medicines will also contain clear, officially-approved information on their safe use.

What are different medicinal herbs for?

Here, Dr Dick Middleton, a retired pharmacist and now director of the BHMA, outlines - in no particular order - his top 10 medicinal herbs...

1. Rhodiola rosea

"For relieving stress, with an energy boost as well, the herb Rhodiola is difficult to beat," says Dr Middleton.

2. Pelargonium

"Take this herbal remedy at the first signs of a cold to keep the symptoms at bay. Always take regularly for at least two days after symptoms have disappeared completely," he suggests.

3. Devil's Claw

Dr Middleton says research shows root extracts of this herb have anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant and pain-relieving properties. "Take for all types of muscle and joint pain," he suggests.

4. Passion Flower

"This herb relieves stress and anxiety and has a calming effect on mood," says Dr Middleton, who suggests it's particularly helpful for relieving insomnia caused by worry and anxiety, when taken in combination with Valerian.

5. Black Cohosh

This well-known herb is said to relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats. Middleton says it's also effective for relieving the mood swings that often accompany the menopause.

6. Valerian

"Valerian root extract has been shown to improve the quality of sleep, but always take it for a few weeks in order to gain maximum benefit," advises Middleton.

7. Echinacea

This herb has been used for many years to relieve symptoms of colds and flu. Many users also believe it has immune-boosting properties.

8. Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle is widely used to relieve symptoms of overindulgence with food and drink, and Middleton says: "Many users take the herb particularly over the Christmas period because it has a longstanding reputation for protecting the liver."

9. Agnus Castus

Middleton says clinical studies have shown that when taken daily on a regular basis, this herb relieves many premenstrual symptoms such as mood swings, cramps, bloating and breast tenderness.

10. St John's Wort

"This herb is very effective in relieving low mood and anxiety when taken regularly," says Dr Middleton. However, it can affect the way some medicines work, so always read the leaflet or seek advice before taking, particularly if you're taking any other medication.

During Herbal Medicine Week, which runs until June 24, the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, is holding events throughout the UK to raise awareness of the benefits of herbal medicine. For more information, visit nimh.org.uk

The supplements that Pamela, Nuala and Jo-Anne turn to

TV presenter Pamela Ballantine (59) swears by herbal remedies to keep arthritis under control. Pamela was diagnosed with osteoarthritis five years ago. She was being treated with steroid injections in her joints which she no longer needs since taking omega oils. She says:

"I take Paradox Oil which was developed by local man Dr Geoff Hayhurst and I find it is great for your joints. I've osteoarthritis and had to have steroid injections in my hands and shoulders every six months. Thankfully I haven't needed them since I started to take the oil a couple of years ago. I also take tumeric tablets as they are good for swelling in the joints and also Vitamin C. It all works together to stop me from falling apart in my old age. I also take charcoal tablets for a hangover. They really do help."

Actress and comic Nuala McKeever (52) has tried herbal supplements but found that changing her diet and cutting out sugar has had the biggest impact on her health. She says:

“I do buy all sorts of herbal supplements but I am really bad at remembering to actually take them. I have osteoarthritis and was told glucosamine sulphate was great for it and I did buy it but forgot to take it. I have changed my diet to a vegan diet and cut out dairy and sugar and that has really helped with my arthritis. A friend recently told me that she takes gingko biloba for bad memory. When I asked her if they worked, she said she didn’t know because she kept forgetting to take them!”

Former Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson (52) from Warringstown swears by echincea to keep the common cold at bay. She says:

“For years I have been taking the herbal remedy echinacea for colds. At the first sign of a cold I will start taking it and will keep taking it for a few weeks. I usually take it a few times a year and I really believe it works and stops the cold from becoming really bad. I also have been taking evening primrose oil for years. A friend who is a nurse recommended it as good for women’s health and it is something I take every day. I have also recently been told that magnesium supplements are very good for maintaining your natural balance and I’m planning to start taking it as well.”

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