Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is a type of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). Using herbs to treat health issues dates back to ancient times. Traditional Chinese medicine used herbs centuries ago. Today, some people with multiple sclerosis (MS) use herbs to treat their symptoms. However, research into herbal medicine is limited, and results from the studies that have been done are mixed.1-5

Herbal treatment options for MS

Herbs can be ingested from teas or soups. They can be inhaled or smoked, like with cannabis. Herbs also can be packed into over-the-counter supplements. There are many herbs that can be used for medicinal purposes. There are no large-scale clinical trial showing effectiveness of these herbal remedies in people living with MS. Some herbs used by some people living with MS are described below.1-5

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo comes from a specific type of tree. It may be able to help improve brain function. It also has antioxidant effects. Free radicals (oxidants) are molecules in the body that can cause damage. Antioxidants protect against their effects. Ginkgo also may play a role in slowing down the immune system response.1,3,4

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort comes from a flower that grows all over the world. Some people believe it can help with depression. Depression is more common among those with MS than in the general population. St. John’s wort also sometimes is used by people who have anxiety or menstrual problems.1,3

St. John’s wort is not intended to replace expert help if you or a loved one is dealing with anxiety or depression. It also is not meant to be used by those with severe depression.1,3

Cranberry

Cranberries are grown in North America. Juice from the fruit may affect how well bacteria can grow in the urinary system. This can help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). People with MS are often at risk for UTIs, and infections can become serious if the immune system is suppressed by MS drugs.1,3

Cranberry or cranberry supplements are not meant to replace traditional UTI treatment methods. They cannot treat a UTI. Instead, they are often used to prevent UTIs.1,3

Valerian

Valerian comes from the root of a flower found in North America, Europe, and Asia. It is commonly used by people with sleep issues and fatigue. Beyond sleep, it has been used for digestive problems. It does not seem to affect the immune system, but it may promote restful sleep and fight MS-related fatigue.1,3

Asian Ginseng

In ancient times, people thought ginseng promoted strength, resisted aging, and improved physical and mental performance. Today, there is limited evidence that ginseng has these properties. However, it is still of interest to some because it may reduce inflammation. It also may have antioxidant properties and be able to boost the immune system. It is sometimes used to help with other neurologic conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s.1,3

Lemon verbena

Despite its name, lemon verbena does not come from lemons. It comes from a flowering plant, but it does have a lemon-like taste. Lemon verbena may be able to reduce inflammation. It also may help slow down the immune system, which is important for people with MS.1,5

Things to know about using herbs and herbal supplements

There are many more herbs than the ones listed above. Some herbs can have side effects. For example, ginkgo biloba can affect your blood's ability to clot. Some herbs also can interfere with certain drugs. St. John’s wort can interact with antidepressant drugs and blood thinners, among many others.1,2

Some herbs may also boost the immune system. This can be a problem for people with MS. They need their immune system to slow down to prevent further damage. Talk with your doctor before starting any new herbal product to make sure it is safe in your situation.1,2

Herbs and herbal supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike traditional drugs, there are not many barriers to producing them. This means that herbal products might contain other ingredients than what they claim. Or they may have other herbs mixed in. Also, supplements may not have the exact amount of an herb that they claim to. This is one of the biggest risks of using herbal products.1,2

If you are interested in taking an herbal product, talk with your doctor or a nutritionist to determine if it is safe. They may be able to recommend a safe source or type of herb to start with.

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Written by: Casey Hribar │ Last reviewed: July 2022.