Traditional herbal medicines: the definitive guide

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Author Miriam Ferrer, PhD Last updated 21st February 2020

  • Ingredients & Nutrition

Many people are confused about the differences between supplements, medicines and traditional herbal remedies. Here we find out what makes a THR different from an ordinary supplement and how these formulations can help you.

What is a traditional herbal medicine?

For tens of thousands of years, people have tried to use the plants they found around them to treat their ailments.

Through a process of trial and error, they discovered that some of these plants or ingredients derived from them could help. For example, they could relieve joint pain, help with sleep or reduce flu symptoms.

These traditional herbal remedies have been passed down for generations. Different traditions, like India’s Ayurvedic medicine and the herbalism practiced by medieval monks, have developed around the world based on locally-available flora.

Modern scientists and doctors have succeeded in creating reliable medicines, some of which are based on these older remedies. For example, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) was first synthesized 1899, but before that the salicylic acid found in willow tree bark had been used for pain relief since ancient times.

However, herbal traditions continue to be relevant in the modern world. Pharmacognosy is the name for the study of plants for medicinal benefits, and researchers in this field continue to study old remedies to discover which are truly effective.

What is the difference between a traditional herbal medicine, a supplement and a vitamin?

Herbal medicines

Herbal medicines/remedies are created from natural ingredients (‘botanicals’ such as sage leaf or turmeric root) and are intended to treat a whole range of ailments. Although they are called ‘medicines’ or ‘remedies’, they are not necessarily registered with the government as safe and effective treatments - to do this requires significant investment in money and time, plus a great deal of scientific evidence.


also known as dietary or health supplements - are products that are intended to ‘supplement’ your normal diet and therefore deliver a benefit.


Vitamins (and minerals like magnesium and calcium) are essential micronutrients that are necessary for human health. They are found in food, and some of them are produced naturally by the human body. Vitamins can be sold in supplement form, but not all supplements are vitamins as they can contain other ingredients.

Vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies are all sometimes sold as supplements. They can also contain other ingredients such a probiotic bacteria. Supplements are often tablets or capsules, but can come in other forms such as gummies, powders and drinks.

What is a THR?

A Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) is a license granted by the UK government to some herbal products, which allows them to be sold as medicines. The use of these herbal medicines is only for minor ailments that don’t require medical supervision (e.g. a cold or rash), and the therapeutic claims are generally specific to that ailment.

In order for a company to have a herbal product recognised as a THR, they must submit scientific evidence that it is safe, has been produced to a high standard, and has been used in the past for particular health purposes (currently in the EU there has to be proof of use for at least 15 years).

If the regulators accept the evidence they will grant the herbal product a THR licence. The company is then allowed to put a THR mark on the packaging and to make particular medicinal claims about what it can do for health and wellbeing.

In the UK, food supplements cannot make medicinal claims, otherwise they are viewed as medicines. This is the reason why so many companies cannot tell customers exactly how a product can be beneficial for their health. However, a THR product is allowed to display claims based on the traditional medicinal use of the ingredients, which gives people much more clarity on what it does. For example, a THR product containing black cohosh can say that it is ‘For the relief of symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes, night sweats, and temporary changes in mood (such as nervous irritability and restlessness), based on traditional use’.

Note that under this scheme, these claims are based on traditional use of the ingredients and not necessarily on scientific evidence of the effectiveness of the product.

Who decides what counts as a THR?

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) decides whether a product can be marketed as a traditional herbal medicine under the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme.

The MHRA assesses the product’s quality, safety and evidence of traditional use, among other factors. This process is laid out under the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive.

How do I know if a product is a THR?

If a herbal product is registered as a THR then it will include the THR Certification Mark on the label/packaging and on a leaflet inside the pack.

The THR Certification Mark shows that a product has been registered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) under the UK Traditional Herbal Registration Scheme. A product bearing this Mark meets the required standards for safety, quality and patient information.

The mark cannot be used except on a product that has been accepted as a THR by the MHRA.

Companies that are caught breaking the rules are dealt with by the MHRA using criminal and civil sanctions, and through trade organisations and the Advertising Standards Authority. If you see a product that you believe is misusing the THR certification mark then please get in touch with the MHRA Herbal Policy Unit at 16-1, MHRA, Market Towers, 1 Nine Elms Lane, London SW8 5NQ, or email


Traditional herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years to treat illnesses and injuries. Some of these older traditions have been incorporated into modern medicine, and researchers continue to find new treatments based on ancient remedies.

In the UK, a company can apply to have a herbal product recognised as a traditional herbal remedy through the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme. To display the THR mark on packaging and make particular claims about health benefits, the company must demonstrate that the product is safe, produced to a high standard and has a history as a remedy.