Are Herbs Safe?

Are Herbs Safe?

When I opened The Herb Stop in 1992, a great number of people were enthused about being able to talk to an herbalist and purchase medicinal herbs. On the other hand, I also encountered skeptics from the scientific community, who implied I was selling placebos or “snake oils”. Around 1993 everybody “fell in love” with herbs and many new herbal companies took this great economic opportunity to produce herbal products, making extravagant claims for their products. These claims and a handful of cases of adverse reactions have fueled an outbreak of worrisome reports.

Today, there is so much information and misinformation about herbs confusing not only the consumer but also doctors and other healthcare professionals. Sometime ago a lady came to The Herb Stop to purchase sassafras. She had read in a Phoenix newspaper or heard on the radio that sassafras is good for acid reflux. I was perplexed, because for years sassafras had been placed on the list of “dangerous” herbs. It was banned from use in all soft drinks because laboratory tests showed that sassafras produced carcinogenic cells.  And now sassafras is being publicized to be taken for acid reflux? Interestingly though, Rosemary Gladstar, a well-known herbalist says that people living in the southern United States, where sassafras grows naturally and has been enjoyed as a beverage tea and a blood cleanser for generations, has the lowest rate of cancer in our country. It is even more interesting to note that there has been no recorded case of cancer caused in humans by sassafras.

The reality is that for thousands of years herbs have been used safely by people and animals. Herbs are people tested and time honored. Herbs are foods with medicinal and nutritional qualities. Because they combine with our bodies the same way as foods do, herbs are able to address both, the symptoms and causes of a health problem.

The uses and safety of herbs has been known throughout the world for a long, long time. Today more than 75% of world population uses herbs as their primary form of medicine. Before herbs such as garlic, echinacea, ginkgo and St. John’s wort were bestsellers in the American market, they had been sold and used safely for decades in many European countries, such as Germany and Switzerland. All bestselling herbs are covered by therapeutic monographs and serve as the basis for labeling and regulating herb products. There, herbal medicines are not considered “complimentary” or “alternative” medicine, they are simply another aspect of conventional medical treatment. For example, living in Switzerland, my Grandmother’s high blood pressure was treated by her doctor with hawthorn. The Doctor told her that hawthorn lowers blood pressure, strengthens the heart and circulatory system without negative side effect.* She lived until the age of 94, never having to take high blood pressure drugs. Working as a Pharma-Assistant in Switzerland, standard procedure was to recommend the “gentle medicine” first. Patients coming to the pharmacy/apothecary with their doctor’s prescriptions would always take home the appropriate herbs to counteract the damaging effects a drug would have on an organ or body system.  For example, when a patient would bring in a prescription of antibiotics for urinary tract infections, we were also instructed to give them Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.

People are always amazed when I tell them that herbs can have an immediate effect, especially when taken on an empty stomach. For example, when I am low in energy I take some spirulina or eleuthero. Within 20 minutes I feel their effect. My friends who have seasonal allergies take plain nettle leaf in a capsule form and get relief within 10 to 20 minutes. In certain situations, herbs work best if taken in a consistent way over a long period of time. This is true in cases of chronic illnesses, because real herbal healing addresses causes rather than symptoms.

As a practicing herbalist for almost 50 years this is my advice to someone making decisions about taking herbal medicines. First of all, I encourage you to buy quality and unprocessed herbs, not standardized equivalents. A standardized herb may be missing many constituents of the whole plant. For example, curcumin capsules are missing all the essential oils that are naturally occurring within the plant turmeric. Secondly, try one or two herbs, or herbal formulas, at a time instead of a whole cart-full. That way you know how you are affected by the herbs and what works. Don’t always go with what one article or one book or some advertisement on TV or the Internet that tells you what’s best. Thirdly, do plenty of research and ask for the assistance of a qualified and reliable healthcare practitioner to help you make your final decision.

Leilah's 10 Tips On Herbal Safety

  1. Start using herbs for simple and non-emergency situations.

  2. When you select an herb, research that herb until you are satisfied with the information you have found. Find out the risks and potential side effects of your chosen herb.

  3. Have a balanced perspective; nothing is completely free of side effects, no drug or herb, not even a food. Anything you put in your mouth or on your body is going to affect you, positive or negative.

  4. Ask for guidance and advice from a person who is well versed in herbal medicine. A person who has made it her/his life’s work and who is able to treat herself/himself successfully with herbal medicine.

  5. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about the herbs you are taking. Show your doctor the bottle or container of your herbs with the exact names, Latin and all. If your doctor discourages you to use herbal medicine seek out a doctor who will help you with your herbal program. Encourage your doctor to communicate with your herbalist from whom you receive herbal guidance.

  6. When you decide on taking an herb, start with the smallest dosage then increase to the recommended dosage. The effectiveness of herbs usually goes by body weight. Dosages are usually based on a 150 pound adult, which is considered an average in both men and women. Adjust the dosage if you weigh 25 percent more or less than 150 pounds.

  7. A child’s dosage is less. Give ½ dose for children 10 to 14 years, ⅓ dose for children 6 – 10 years, ¼ dose for children 2 – 6 years, and 1/8 dose for infants and babies. Not all herbs are safe and suitable for children and infants. Consult your herbalist or healthcare professional before giving herbs to your children.

  8. Don’t take herbs when you are pregnant or breastfeeding unless you have consulted your doctor or herbalist.

  9. Some herbs and forms of herbal medicines have adverse effects on animals. For example, catnip and valerian excites cats, whereas in humans it relaxes us. Talk to your veterinarian and herbalist before giving herbs to your pets.

  10. Always use your common sense!

Written By Leilah

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