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The term phytotherapy was defined by the French doctor and author Henri Leclerc (1870 - 1955). It is derived from the Greek word "phytón", which means "plant". Behind this lies the knowledge of the treatment of diseases with plants, also known as herbal medicine.

Phytotherapy - brief overview

The following overview briefly summarizes the essential facts about phytotherapy:

  • definition: Treatment of diseases with the healing power of plants. Phytotherapy is divided into the more scientifically oriented and the mostly experience-oriented herbal medicine.
  • effect: The medicinal properties of the plants can be attributed to various active ingredients, which differ considerably depending on the plant. The active substances are divided into active substance groups. These include, for example, flavonoids, alkaloids, saponins, glucosides and coumarins.
  • application areas: The areas of application for herbal remedies (phytopharmaceuticals) are very extensive, but different for each plant, so that no specific information is possible here. The effects of many plants can be found in our medicinal plants section. For example, phytotherapy can be helpful for respiratory diseases, for building up the immune system, for sleep disorders, complaints in the urogenital tract and in gynecology.
  • Forms of application of phytotherapy: Tea blends, fresh plant juices, original tinctures, tinctures, bath additives, envelopes, compresses, dragees, tablets, suppositories, creams or ointments.
  • Important NOTE: Please seek expert advice before taking or using phytopharmaceuticals to avoid side effects and / or interactions.

Herbal medicine is applied from a scientific and / or experiential perspective. The scientifically oriented phytotherapy deals intensively with the individual active ingredients of the respective plant. The branch of phytotherapy, which is based on experiential medicine, relies more on the observations that have been gathered and handed down over thousands of years of experience. Of course, both branches can complement and enrich each other so that they are by no means mutually exclusive.

Although phytotherapy has such a long tradition and its knowledge is based on extensive experience and observations, there is still a long way to go to all medicinal plants to provide scientific evidence of their effectiveness. This is mainly due to the fact that there are a huge number of medicinal plants and each one contains many different active ingredients. So it takes a lot of time and money to carry out studies on each individual plant. So far, phytotherapy has only been partially recognized by conventional medicine.

Important NOTE: You need a lot of knowledge and experience to use phytotherapy correctly. Plants and medicines made from them (phytopharmaceuticals or phytotherapeutics) can contain toxins which, if used incorrectly or dosed, can lead to symptoms of poisoning such as nausea and vomiting, cardiovascular problems, paralysis and, in the worst case, death. In addition, kidney and liver damage is possible. Allergic reactions and drug interactions can also occur. For this reason, expert advice should always be obtained before taking a herbal preparation.

You should only make phytotherapeutics such as tea yourself if you are 100% sure about the plant, its effects, application and dosage.

Historical review

Phytotherapy is one of the oldest healing methods in naturopathy. Its origin goes back to the Stone Age. Medicinal plants were grown in China and India as early as the sixth millennium BC. In the 17th century BC, 700 different plant substances were mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus, including anise, caraway, linseed and hemp. A five-volume pharmacy, the Materia Medica, which was written around 100 AD by the Greek doctor Pedanios Dioskurides, describes around 1000 medicinal plants and was the basis of all pharmacopoeias until the 16th century.

Plants that are used today more than ever in phytotherapy have also been used by Galen (AD 129-201). These include yarrow, licorice, squill and willow bark. Claudius Galenus (Galen) established rules for the different types of medicinal preparation. The term “galenics” also goes back to him. This describes the science of the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.

The heyday of phytotherapy began in the 15th century. Paracelsus wrote the work "Herbarius" and at the end of the 16th century one of the greatest works of Western herbal medicine was published by Jakobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, a student of Hyronimus Bock. This book contained more than 3000 plant descriptions and approximately 2400 illustrations. The last edition dates from 1731.

Modern phytotherapy began in the 18th century with the discovery of morphine. At that time, the pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner (1783 - 1841) isolated from opium this pain reliever, which is still important in medicine today.

Herbal medicine - scientifically oriented

The scientifically oriented herbal medicine uses the plants according to their different ingredients and the associated effects. In a single medicinal plant there are sometimes many different individual active ingredients. For example, chamomile contains flavonoids, mucilages and essential oils.

Herbal medicine - based on experiential medicine

The branch of phytotherapy, which is based on experiential medicine, relies primarily on the direct observations that have been collected and handed down over the centuries in the use of medicinal plants. Among other things, the signature theory plays an important role.

Signature theory

With the help of the signature theory, the plant is viewed as a whole. The focus is not on their ingredients, but on their external signs, their shape, color, where and how it grows. On the basis of this information, the signature theory derives which areas of application could fit this plant and which complaints it could be helpful.

This can be better understood with the help of an example. Everyone knows the daisy, the tirelessly blooming, lovely flower. This flower conveys integrity, innocence and childishness. But the daisy also radiates motherliness, which is shown by the fact that the flower wreath is protective around the flower basket in the rain or in the evening. This flower, also called Maßliebchen or Tausendschön, grows under the most adverse conditions, keeps getting up and blooming all the time. In the event of injuries, both externally and internally and mentally, the plant helps to restore lost integrity.

Active ingredient groups of the plants

Each medicinal plant contains different ingredients, which in turn are assigned to so-called active ingredient groups. Each group of active ingredients has certain areas of activity. Anyone who works in the natural sciences in phytotherapy uses the different plants depending on their composition.


Alkaloids are nitrogen-containing ingredients in plants. They arise as a breakdown product of the plant metabolism. The hotter and wetter the environment, the more alkaloids are formed.
Alkaloids mainly affect the nervous system. However, more recent studies also attribute promising antibacterial effects to them.

The use of alkaloids is not without danger, as they have a very strong effect and can be fatal if the dosage is incorrect. The right amount and form of treatment is extremely important here.


The term saponine is derived from the Latin word "sapo" for soap, since saponins foam when mixed with water. The majority of the saponins protect the plants from fungal attack. They have anti-inflammatory, ejector, antiviral and antibiotic effects. Ivy extract, which contains many cough medicine, liquefies the bronchial secretion and thus makes it easier to cough up.


Glycosides are made up of different substances, but they all have one thing in common: they all contain a sugar compound. Because they are so different, they also have a diverse range of effects. This is how cardiac glycosides work on the heart; for example, they are contained in the lily of the valley. Flavone glycosides, such as those found in the ginkgo, promote blood circulation. Triterpene glycosides, for example in the rhizome of Cimicifuga (black cohosh), have a similar effect to the hormone estrogen.


Tanning agents help tanning the leather. They are able to bind protein molecules together, which changes the properties of the proteins and thereby displaces the bound water. The tannins have an astringent (contracting), antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and hemostatic effect. Examples of plants and plant components that contain tannins are bloodroot, lady's mantle, oak leaves and walnut leaves.

Bitter substances

As the name suggests, bitter substances have a bitter taste that has an appetizing and digestive effect. This produces more saliva and makes the digestive juices flow. Bitter substances should be absorbed by the mucous membranes in the mouth in order to be able to work. Examples of plants containing bitter substances are gentian, centaury, Benedictine herb and angelica root. Taken before eating, they have an appetizing effect, and after the meal they help digestion.


Flavonoids are color pigments that are found in the cell sap of the plants. These occur mainly in yellow flowers (from Latin "flavus" for yellow), but also in all parts of the plant above ground. They protect the plants from radiation damage.

This protective effect can also be used in phytotherapy. For example, it was found that goldenrod and marigold can protect the skin from radiation damage. Due to their antioxidative effect, flavonoids are considered to be particularly health-promoting today, although this does not only refer to the avoidance of radiation damage. For example, the flavonoids of milk thistle have a protective effect on the liver cells.

The so-called isoflavonoids are derived from the flavonoids. They have a hormone-like effect and are contained in soy, red clover, broom, lentils and much more. They are said to have a positive effect, especially against menopausal symptoms and hormone-related cancers.


Coumarins are common in the plant kingdom. In the fresh plant these are mostly odorless, but after the drying process they smell of freshly cut grass. Coumarins mainly inhibit blood clotting. At higher doses, this could possibly damage the liver. Well-known coumarin plants are woodruff, stone clover and Mariengras.


Mucilages are so-called polysaccharides that can swell in water and thus get a gel-like substance. There are two types of mucilage: water-soluble and water-insoluble. The water-soluble mucilages act on the skin and / or mucous membrane by forming a protective film. This anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory effect is particularly popular in the treatment of cough, sore throat and gastrointestinal inflammation.

Essential oils

Essential oils are oily substances that evaporate completely when evaporated and have a different aroma depending on the plant. Essential oils have a wide range of uses. For example, fennel has a flatulence effect, lavender has a calming effect, chamomile has an anti-inflammatory effect and marjoram has an antibiotic effect.

The scent is an important feature in phytotherapy. If the patient rejects a certain aroma, the plant is not suitable for treatment, but if it triggers a sense of well-being, this speaks for the application.

Use of phytotherapy

The medicinal plants in phytotherapy are used as remedies. Self-medication should be avoided, since every “herb” can also have side effects. In many naturopathic practices, phytotherapy is used successfully for a wide variety of diseases.

The plants are administered in tea mixtures, as fresh plant juices, in original tinctures or tinctures, in bath additives, in the form of envelopes and compresses, as dragées, tablets or as suppositories, creams or ointments. The time of harvest, quality, processing and storage are important for the effect of the individual plants.

The plants, depending on the ingredients, have a wide variety of effects. Mixtures are put together conscientiously so that the individual remedies support each other and can thus increase the effect. This requires sound knowledge. Phytotherapy is successfully used for respiratory diseases, colds, for building up the immune system, for sleep disorders, for complaints in the genitourinary tract, in gynecology and much more.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers and children can also benefit from phytotherapy. However, special caution should be exercised here and an experienced therapist and / or detailed advice in the pharmacy is essential. Care should be taken even if “only” tea recipes are used, since some plant substances can have a strong blood circulation and / or cause contractions. In infants, toddlers and children, special care must be taken to ensure that the dosage is adjusted.

Preparation methods for medicinal tea - examples

To show how the plant active ingredients can be obtained, we have chosen the example of tea here. In addition, there are numerous other ways of obtaining and producing herbal medicines.

In phytotherapy there are different types of preparation for the different medicinal teas. Depending on the ingredients, the tea is infused with hot water, prepared with cold water and then boiled or even used as a cold extract.


The infusion corresponds to pouring the dried teas with hot water. This method of preparation is mainly used for sensitive parts of plants such as flowers, leaves and seeds, but also for plants in which a cooking process would destroy the ingredients.


When boiling, the amount of tea in question is mixed with cold water, brought to the boil and boiled for one to three or fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on the recipe. Barks, roots and woods with poorly soluble components are subjected to this method of preparation.

Cold extraction (maceration)

This method of preparation should be selected if hot water would release unwanted accompanying substances, as would be the case, for example, with the tannins of bearberry leaves. The amount of plants is mixed with water and should then be covered for between six and eight hours. Then the whole thing is poured off. (sw)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


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Video: Phytotherapy: The Rational Use of Plants by Rick Henriksen MD, MPP (February 2023).