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Careers: Herbal Medicine


Herbalism refers to the use of medicinal plants to maintain health and to prevent and manage disease. Plant medicines can be eaten as foods, made into more concentrated forms for internal use (teas, tinctures, and other preparations) and applied externally (pastes, poultices, compresses, salves).


Wooden mortar and pestle with flowers and herbs in the sun Since the dawn of human existence, people the world over have used medicinal plants. The oldest surviving medical text is a long sheet of papyrus from circa 1500 BC that listed 876 herbal formulas derived from more than 500 plants. Even earlier, the legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung (a.k.a. the Divine Farmer) is said to have created the first herbal.i

All the major healing traditions ground for themselves plant-based nutrition and herbs. In some traditions, plants are used for physical, emotional and spiritual healing. The World Health Organization estimates that, in some African and Asian countries, approximately 80 percent of people still use herbal medicine as their primary form of healing.

Herbalism gave birth to modern pharmacology. Even now, about 32 percent of drugs are natural products (chiefly plants) or are derived from natural products. If you include pharmaceuticals inspired by plant mechanisms, about 63 percent of drugs have plant origins.ii

Herbs often work more slowly than drugs but their complex chemistry tends to buffer side effects. Nevertheless, after antibiotics became widely used circa World World II, the dramatic effects of pharmaceuticals (along with pressure from the American Medical Association) lead to a sharp decline in the use and acceptance of herbal medicines. A search on the National Library of Medicine's database PubMed confirms that a growing body of scientific literature gives credence to traditionally used herbs.


i Castleman, Michael. The New Healing Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2001.

ii Haffner SM. The insulin resistance syndrome revisited. Diabetes Care 1996;19:275-7. Reported in: Schmidt B, Ribnicky DM, et al. Metabolism Clinical and Experimental 57 (Suppl 1) (2008) S3–S9.


While not all plants are safe (and some are poisonous), the vast majority of herbal remedies available in natural health stores in the U.S. are safe when used within recommended dosage guidelines. Nevertheless, some medicinal plants can cause side facts. Some are not appropriate for children, pregnant or nursing women, people with certain disease or people on certain medications. For more information, consult a reputable source such as the American Botanical Council, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the National Medicine Comprehensive Database or an herbalist.


Wooden mortar and pestle with flowers and herbs Herbal medicine classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver

The Integrative Therapeutic Practices program at MSU Denver offers two classes in herbalism: HES 190A Herbal Medicines (ITP 1600 in 2012) and Botanical Pharmacology HES 3410 (ITP 4300 in Spring of 2012).

Further training to become an herbalist

Licensure & Average Income

Herbalists are not licensed in the U.S. Nevertheless, some herbalists maintain clinical practices, others teach and write and still others produce and/or sell herbal products. Annual income also depends upon the ability of the herbalist to market his- or herself. According to the website Natural Healers, herbalists can make $30,000 to $50,000 a year. The salary depends upon whether the herbalist strictly consults, also sells herbal products, teaches, publishes, farms, has a health-care degree (R.N., M.D.) or certification (massage therapist), etc.

Author InformationPink Flower

Linda B. White, M.D. is a freelance writer, the coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore and Kids, Herbs & Health and is a visiting assistant professor in the  Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at MSU Denver.


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