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What Are Botanicals?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 09, 2022

Botanicals are derived from plants. Specifically, in the health and wellness field, this term refers to plants or parts of plants with medicinal value or health benefits. Botanicals are modified into botanical preparations, botanical drugs, and essential oils. With rising concerns about the safety, cost, and adverse effects of conventional pharmaceutical drugs, these are gaining popularity. Botanical health products are now widely available for use.

What Are Botanicals?

Botanicals are parts of plants — the leaves, flowers, seeds, bark, roots, twigs, or other parts. Some plants and their ingredients have been known and used for centuries. Other botanicals have only recently come into use. 

Regardless, they provide curative effects that alleviate some ailments and enhance health in several different ways. Used with knowledge and appropriate levels of caution, botanicals have the potential to heal your body and mind and improve your wellbeing.

Botanicals can be harvested in the wild or grown in gardens and farms. Once harvested, they must be prepared for use. 

The three common forms of botanicals are:

  • Botanical preparations
  • Botanical drugs
  • Essential oils

What Are Botanical Preparations?

Botanical preparations are products made from plants of medicinal value. They are packaged as decoctions, extracts, infusions, pills, powders, teas, tinctures, etc., and marketed as dietary supplements. They do not need U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification, as they make no claims about curing a specific illness.

Since they don't undergo FDA certification processes, they don't have to abide by the efficacy, purity, potency, dosage guidelines, and pre-market safety testing required for regulated drugs. 

Herbal medicine, also called phytomedicine or phytotherapy, relies heavily on botanical preparations, which are often referred to as herbal supplements, herbal preparations, or herbal products. 

How can you reassure yourself, though, about the quality of botanical preparations? Reputable manufacturers submit their products for voluntary testing to independent laboratories, so look for a certificate of purity and potency by such laboratories on the label.

What Is Botanical Medicine?

Botanical medicine, or botanical drugs, are products that cure a specific medical condition. The FDA grants approval to them after the same rigorous evaluation as pharmaceutical drugs. The manufacturer must produce evidence that the botanical drug cures a disease.

Botanical drugs also have to follow good manufacturing practices. They must meet standards of purity, efficacy, potency on storage, and packaging. They also have to provide dosage guidelines. They can be prescribed as medicine used to treat certain diseases.

Botanical Forms

Botanicals are available in their original form as well as packaged preparations. For example, you can buy fresh ginger in the supermarket's produce section and dried ginger and its powdered form as supplements. Both forms will aid your digestion and relieve nausea and constipation.

Botanical preparations and drugs are available in a variety of forms.

  • Infusions and teas are similar, but infusions are more concentrated. They are both made by adding boiling water to dried botanicals. You can consume infusions and hot or cold teas.
  • Tinctures are prepared by soaking botanicals in a mixture of water and alcohol. This serves to preserve the botanical. Tinctures are marketed in liquid form, sporting various levels of concentration.
  • Decoctions are used for botanicals with active compounds that are difficult to extract. The botanical is first boiled in water and then allowed to simmer for a time. This process concentrates the botanical. You can consume decoctions hot or cold.
  • Extracts are prepared by soaking the botanicals in a liquid (like water or alcohol) that extracts their desired constituents. The extract so obtained can be consumed in liquid form. It can also be evaporated to yield a powder for pills or capsules.

Herbal Medicine Benefits

Herbal medicine has been used around the world for centuries, and many herbs and plants have ingredients with known benefits. 

Black cohosh and red clover, for instance, are used by women to relieve mood swings and other symptoms of menopause

Extracts of St. John's Wort are known to benefit people with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. 

Echinacea, green tea, valerian, and ginger are widely used for a variety of health-promoting effects.

Herbal medicines have fairly mild effects on the body. If you find it difficult to tolerate pharmaceutical drugs or have intolerable reactions to them, you may want to try herbal drugs. Herbal medicines are derived from nature and usually free from harsh chemicals, coloring agents, and preservatives.

Using Botanicals Wisely and Safely

Though they often have health benefits, botanical products cannot claim to treat any condition. In addition, dietary supplements.

  • Should have a list of active ingredients on the label
  • Should specify the quantity of such ingredients per serving
  • Should also mention binders, fillers, flavorings, and preservatives

Since the botanical preparations are not standardized or proven to treat any disease, you should look for a healthcare provider expert in botanical use. Follow their advice about dosage, frequency, and duration of consumption. You should report any side effects to your health care provider.

Botanicals have active ingredients, and side effects happen. You are more likely to experience reactions, though, if you consume these preparations at high doses or take several different botanicals. Reactions may also happen because of batch-to-batch variation in the composition of the preparation. 

Botanicals also come with the risk of interfering with the effects of your prescription pharmaceutical medicines.

As with any medicine, be very cautious about using these products while pregnant or breastfeeding. Children, too, should be given these preparations after careful consideration. Remember, the word "natural" does not guarantee safety or freedom from side effects.

Essential Oils Uses

Essential oils are a type of botanical. They're derived from plants. However, unlike botanical preparations that are consumed as dietary supplements, essential oils are used for their fragrance, flavor, and other properties.

Essential oils are obtained from plants by physical compression or distillation. They are processed to retain the original fragrance and flavor of their source plant.

Essential oils have a variety of ingredients, because of which they differ in aroma, appearance, and flavor. Essential oils' use depends on these properties. Essential oils of basil, chamomile, frankincense, and lavender are soothing in their fragrances. They provide calm and relief from anxiety. Bergamot (a citrus plant) and peppermint oils have a stimulant action, which helps people with depression. But responses to essential oils are very individual. You should consult an expert for your particular needs.

Essential oils are used in various ways. Adding them to a bath provides both inhaled and topical (skin) benefits. Some oils are useful as local applications for wound healing. Not all oils can be applied directly to the skin, though, as some are strong irritants. Consulting an aromatherapist with experience in using these botanicals is best.

Botanicals are not truly a new concept. Medicines of plant origin have been used for centuries because plants have always been a good source of nutrition and medicine. 

The increasing popularity of botanicals may bring us closer to nature and its healing gifts.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Michigan State University Center for Research on Ingredient Safety: "Botanicals."

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: "Essential Oils." https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/essential-oils/index.cfm

National Institutes of Health: "Botanical Dietary Supplements - Background Information," "Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know."

University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing: "How Do I Choose and Use Essential Oils?" "Why Do People Use Botanicals?"

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