The Best Medicinal Herbs


Herbal medicines are a common remedy used in many fields of natural medicine, including homeopathy, naturopathy and traditional Chinese medicine. However, in this day and age of modern medicine it can be easy to dismiss natural remedies in favour of over-the-counter or prescription pharmaceuticals.

This guide to the best medicinal herbs is designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the most commonly used medicinal herbs. It explores the potential uses and benefits of 18 of the best medicinal herbs, and discusses important things to keep in mind if you are considering using herbal medicine.

What are herbal medicines?

Herbal medicines are medicines with active ingredients derived from plants. They may be made from the entire plant, or from a specific part of the plant such as the flower, leaves or roots. They may be comprised of only one type of plant (e.g. turmeric), or they may be a mixture of several different plants. For example, the Bach flower remedies used in homeopathy are made from a combination of watered-down plant extracts.

Many over-the-counter medications are also derived from plant ingredients. For example, salicylic acid, which is the main active ingredient in aspirin, is derived from the meadowsweet plant. However, herbal medicines differ in that they are typically produced in a way that keeps as much of the plant in its natural form as possible, as herbal medicine is founded on a belief that the benefit from the whole plant is greater than the benefit from any one part.

Perhaps the most commonly known form of herbal medicine is Chinese herbal medicine—a specific form of herbal medicine, thought to have developed 3,000 years ago. It is based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, which states that good health is achieved when the body is balanced, and energy (known as “Qi”) is flowing freely through it. There are over 300 Chinese medicine herbs that are commonly used by Chinese herbal medicine practitioners to treat a range of ailments, including ginseng, ginkgo, ginger, licorice and salvia.

Conditions herb medicine can be used to treat

Natural therapies incorporating herb medicine can be a powerful complement to western approaches to medicine, and help to treat a range of conditions. While much more research is required, scientific studies are increasingly demonstrating the benefits of medicinal herbs for preventing diseases associated with ageing, treating skin conditions, boosting the immune system and improving cognitive function.

Some of the medical conditions that herbal medicines, including traditional Chinese medicinal herbs are used to treat, include:

18 of the best medicinal herbs

There are hundreds of medicinal herbs used by natural therapy practitioners to help patients treat a wide variety of ailments. Many of these have been widely used by Indigenous people since ancient times, and continue to be used today alongside western medicine. Below we provide an alphabetical list of medicinal herbs commonly recommended by naturopaths, homeopaths and Chinese herbal medicine practitioners.

1. Arnica


Arnica is a medicinal herb most commonly used to treat bruising. It is extracted from the Arnica montana flower, which is a perennial that grows in Europe and Siberia. The flowers are typically used to make ointments or creams for topical application to treat bruising, muscle aches and pains, and joint pain and swelling. While it is sometimes prescribed by homeopaths in a highly diluted form, Arnica creams or ointments should never be ingested orally as they are designed for use on the skin, and high doses of Arnica can be fatal.

2. Chamomile


Most commonly consumed as a tea, chamomile is a medicinal herb thought to improve sleep and promote digestion. Chamomile is derived from two species of daisy-like plants from the Asteraceae family: Matricaria chamomilla and Chamaemelum nobile. It is high in antioxidants, which help to reduce the risk of inflammation-induced conditions such as cancer. It is a particularly good source of the antioxidant, apigenin, which is thought to have a beneficial impact for people who suffer from chronic insomnia by promoting sleepiness. While chamomile is generally well-tolerated by most people, it can increase the risk of bleeding when taken in conjunction with blood-thinning drugs.

3. Comfrey

Found throughout North America, Asia and Europe, comfrey is a shrub whose roots and leaves are used in traditional medicine around the world. It is primarily used to treat inflammatory conditions, thanks to the allantoin and rosmarinic acid that it contains. Allantoin is known to promote the growth of new skin cells, while rosmarinic acid helps to relieve pain and inflammation. Like Arnica, it is typically turned into ointments and salves for external use on the skin, to help relieve muscle sprains, bruises and joint inflammation. While comfrey has historically been used in oral preparations to treat stomach conditions, this is no longer recommended due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids it contains which may both harm the liver, and cause cancer.

4. Dandelion

Often thought of as a weed in Australia, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a medicinal herb that has a range of health benefits thanks to its high vitamin and mineral content. Specifically, it contains vitamins A, B, C and D, as well as iron, potassium and zinc. The plant’s leaves can be eaten like salad greens, or boiled along with the roots and flowers to create herbal teas. Dandelion root is commonly recommended by herbalists as a treatment to detoxify the liver and gallbladder, while the leaves can be used to stimulate appetite, help digestion, and enhance kidney function.

5. Dong Quai


Used in parts of Asia for more than 2,000 years, dong quai (Angelica sinensis) is a Chinese medicinal herb belonging to the same family as carrots and celery. It is colloquially known as ‘female ginseng’ as the root is typically dried and prescribed to women to help relieve the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, menopause and period cramps, by promoting blood circulation. According to traditional Chinese medicine, different parts of the root have different properties, each of which has a slightly different effect on the blood.

6. Echinacea


Native to North America, Echinacea is a popular medicinal herb, most commonly associated with its positive immune boosting effects. It is a group of nine flowering plants in the daisy family, however only three are used in herbal supplements: Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida.

Both the roots and upper parts of these plants have medicinal properties, and are known for being high in antioxidants (including caffeic acid and flavonoids), which are an important compound that helps the body to fight the impacts of oxidative stress.

Echinacea has been used by Native Americans for centuries, but in a modern context, it is most commonly used to support immune function. Echinacea has been shown to help reduce the likelihood of contracting upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold and the flu, while its anti-inflammatory properties can provide relief for people suffering from inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis.

7. Evening Primrose


Native to America, evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is a yellow flowering plant whose flowers open at sunset. The seeds from the plant are typically pressed to create evening primrose oil, which is a natural remedy used to treat a wide variety of conditions. The benefits of evening primrose oil come in large part from the plant’s gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) content. GLA is an omega-6 essential fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory properties. Evening primrose oil is typically taken orally, in capsule form, and used to treat skin conditions such as acne and eczema, as well as relieving the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

8. Garlic

Used to add flavour to food the world over, garlic is a medicinal herb in the Allium family that has been used as a herbal medicine since ancient times. Garlic has a range of health benefits, from helping to boost immune system function and increase resistance to the common cold, to lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels. Scientists attribute these health benefits to sulfur compounds found in garlic, including diallyl disulfide and s-allyl cysteine which are released into the body during digestion. While adding raw and cooked garlic to meals is a great way to boost your nutrient intake, high dosage garlic supplements are the best way to unlock garlic’s myriad health benefits.

9. Ginger

Readily available, reasonably affordable to buy, and packed full of antioxidants, ginger is easily one of the best medicinal herbs available in Australia. Closely related to turmeric, ginger is a spice in the Zingiberaceae family, whose rhizome has been used for centuries in both cooking and natural medicine. Available in many different forms, from fresh ginger, to powdered ginger, or as an oil, it helps to aid digestion, reduce nausea associated with morning sickness and travel sickness, promotes immune health and relieves inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis. There is also emerging evidence that ginger can have a beneficial effect on heart health, prevent cancer and help with weight loss. Many of these benefits are attributable to the main antioxidant in ginger, known as gingerol.

10. Gingko Biloba


Gingko biloba is a tree that is native to China, and is one of the best-known Chinese medicinal herbs. Both the leaves and seeds have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, however modern natural remedies typically use gingko extract which is made from the leaves of the tree. Like many of the best medicinal herbs, gingko biloba contains high levels of antioxidants, including flavonoids and terpenoids, which are likely responsible for many of the plant’s positive health benefits and contribute to its strong anti-inflammatory properties. Gingko biloba is most commonly used to improve circulation by promoting blood flow, which has positive benefits for heart health and makes it a common remedy for headaches and migraines. It is also thought to have a positive effect on brain function, with some small studies suggesting a positive impact on mental performance and well-being, including reducing anxiety and depression.

11. Ginseng


Like gingko biloba, ginseng is a popular medicinal herb that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Similarly to ginger, it is a root, that can be used fresh in cooking or brewed into tea, as well as being available as an extract in powder, tablet, capsule and oil form. There are two main types of ginseng—American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)—both of which contain the active compounds ginsenosides and gintonin. The antioxidants in ginseng are known to have a number of benefits, particularly for brain health, with ginseng consumption associated with improved cognitive function and reduced stress levels. In addition to these benefits, ginseng has positive effects on energy levels and immune function and may reduce the risk of cancer by combatting inflammation.

12. Lemon Balm


Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a medicinal herb used around the world as a traditional remedy for improving mood and cognitive function. The lemon-scented herb is typically brewed into a tea, or consumed in powder or capsule form and has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels, ease insomnia and boost cognitive function. In addition to its calming properties, lemon balm may also help to alleviate nausea, menstrual cramps and cold sores.

13. Slippery Elm

Used by Native Americans for centuries, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is a tree native to the eastern United States and Canada. The tree’s slimy inner bark is commonly used to soothe a range of conditions, from inflammatory bowel conditions and heartburn, to sore throats and urinary tract infections. Available in lozenge, powder and tablet form, slippery elm contains a compound called ‘mucilage’ which soothes irritated tissues by coating them in a sticky mixture of sugars.

14. St John’s Wort


St John’s Wort is well-recognised as one of the best medicinal herbs for treating a range of mental health conditions, and is particularly effective for helping people to manage the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a yellow flowering plant that takes its name from St John the Baptist, as it typically flowers around his feast day in late June. It is commonly promoted in Europe for the treatment of mild depression, and has also been shown to have positive effects in the treatment of ADHD, somatic symptom disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It may also help to relieve premenstrual syndrome symptoms. As St John’s Wort is known to interact with a range of medicines in potentially life-threatening ways, it is important to speak to a healthcare professional before using it.

15. Tea Tree


Native to New South Wales and Queensland, tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a potent Australian medicinal herb, renowned for its antibacterial and antifungal properties. To access these benefits, the tea tree’s leaves are crushed to release this fragrant essential oil. The majority of tea tree oil’s germ fighting properties come from its main active ingredient—terpinene-4-ol, which has been shown to kill some viruses, bacteria and fungi, while also increasing white blood cell activity.

Like witch hazel, tea tree oil is a topical treatment used to treat a range of skin conditions, including dandruff, Athlete’s foot and other nail fungus, contact dermatitis and acne. It can also be used as a natural hand sanitizer and an antiseptic for small cuts and wounds. However, it is important to note that tea tree oil should never be taken orally as it may be toxic if ingested.

16. Turmeric


Alongside ginger, turmeric is one of the best medicinal herbs available, owing to its high antioxidant content. Used in India for both traditional medicine and cooking for centuries, turmeric is a flowering plant in the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family, whose root contains the active ingredient curcumin. Curcumin is known for its powerful ability to neutralise free radicals, helping to lower the risk of heart disease, prevent cancer, fight Alzheimer’s disease and relieve the symptoms of arthritis.

17. Valerian

Like lemon balm, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a medicinal herb widely used for its calming properties, and has been used since the Middle Ages to treat insomnia. The root of the valerian plant contains a number of active ingredients, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is one of the main neurotransmitters responsible for sleep regulation. In addition to helping improve sleep quality, valerian has also been shown to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

18. Witch Hazel


Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a shrub found in North America that is typically used for its beneficial effects on the skin. The leaves and bark are traditionally turned into ointments that are used to ease inflammation and soothe sensitive skin. For example, witch hazel is commonly applied to the skin to relieve conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, and applied to the scalp to help prevent dandruff and dryness.

Things to consider before taking herbal medicines

Whether you are considering using Australian native medicinal herbs, or Chinese medicinal herbs, there are a number of important things to keep in mind. Specifically, always: