The risk-benefit profile of commonly used herbal therapies: Ginkgo, St. John's Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Kava

Ann Intern Med. 2002 Jan 1;136(1):42-53. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-136-1-200201010-00010.


Because use of herbal remedies is increasing, a risk-benefit profile of commonly used herbs is needed. This article provides a clinically oriented overview of the efficacy and safety of ginkgo, St. John's wort, ginseng, echinacea, saw palmetto, and kava. Wherever possible, assessments are based on systematic reviews of randomized clinical trials. Encouraging data support the efficacy of some of these popular herbal medicinal products, and the potential for doing good seems greater than that for doing harm. The published evidence suggests that ginkgo is of questionable use for memory loss and tinnitus but has some effect on dementia and intermittent claudication. St. John's wort is efficacious for mild to moderate depression, but serious concerns exist about its interactions with several conventional drugs. Well-conducted clinical trials do not support the efficacy of ginseng to treat any condition. Echinacea may be helpful in the treatment or prevention of upper respiratory tract infections, but trial data are not fully convincing. Saw palmetto has been shown in short-term trials to be efficacious in reducing the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia. Kava is an efficacious short-term treatment for anxiety. None of these herbal medicines is free of adverse effects. Because the evidence is incomplete, risk-benefit assessments are not completely reliable, and much knowledge is still lacking.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Dementia / therapy
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Echinacea / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Ginkgo biloba / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Hypericum / adverse effects
  • Intermittent Claudication / therapy
  • Kava / adverse effects
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / therapy
  • Panax / adverse effects
  • Phytotherapy / adverse effects*
  • Plant Preparations / adverse effects*
  • Plant Preparations / therapeutic use*
  • Prostatic Hyperplasia / therapy
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / therapy
  • Risk Assessment
  • Serenoa / adverse effects
  • Tinnitus / therapy


  • Plant Preparations