Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, how they are used, and where to find out more.
Herbal remedies are substances derived from plants, which are used as a way of treating and preventing different health problems. They can come in various forms such as capsules, teas, liquid drops or skin creams.
Some may be referred to as 'supplements', typically meaning products which aim to boost your health and wellbeing in some way (such as drinking camomile tea to promote good sleep). Others may be referred to as 'medicines', typically meaning products which aim to treat, cure or prevent a diagnosed health problem (such as using St John's wort to treat depression instead of prescription antidepressants).
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) publish detailed, reliable information on which herbal remedies are used for different mental health problems, how each remedy works, how effective it is, what side effects it can cause, and what drugs they can interact with. You can read this information on the RCPsych website.
For detailed information on St John's wort, see our pages on St John's wort.
Unlike psychiatric medication, most herbal remedies are:
Although herbal remedies are easily available to buy without a prescription, some may not be suitable for you, or could be harmful. For example if you:
For more guidance see our pages on:
The NHS Choices page on herbal medicines also has more information.
Most herbal products sold in supermarkets, pharmacists and health shops in the UK are licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – the same organisation that licenses other kinds of drugs, including psychiatric medications. But herbal remedies come under the Traditional Herbal Medicines Registration scheme. Under this scheme, registration is based on the long-standing use of a plant as a traditional herbal medicine – not based on clinical trials, as prescription drugs are.
Licensed herbal products should be marked with the registration mark shown here:
This indicates that the herbal medicine is safe to an acceptable standard, provided it is used according to the instructions on the packaging. The product should also have a registration number, starting with the letters ‘THR’.
Bespoke herbal remedies prepared by herbal practitioners are not licenced.
Herbal practitioners play an established role in Western herbal medicine, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine. But currently there are no rules around who can call themselves a herbal practitioner – you can practice without having any related experience or qualifications.
However, there are a number of voluntary registers which require certain standards of practice and education. So if you want to find a herbal practitioner, it's a good idea to find someone through one of these registers:
This information was published in April 2018. We will revise it in 2021.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.