Herbs are generally considered to be safer to use than pharmaceutical drugs. When used properly, they tend to have a gentler effect on the body; supporting organ systems rather than covering up symptoms. They are certainly more appropriate for home-based, grassroots health care.
An important question is: “What is the proper use of herbs?” Let’s take a look at some safety issues to keep in mind when considering using plant medicines.
Rule #1: Do No Harm
The main safety issue I always ask myself is, “What will happen if the herbs are not effective?” No form of healthcare is 100% effective all the time, regardless of our training, experience or skill level.
One example is asthma. Some plants have traditionally been used to prevent or stop acute bronchial spasms. If a person chooses to use these and completely disregards having an inhaler ready if needed, this can become a life-threatening situation if the herbs fail to do the job as expected.
A different example is using herbs to help relax and calm the nervous system to promote a deeper sleep. If the herbs work, a rejuvenating sleep results. If they are ineffective, the person simply doesn’t sleep well that night. The important point is that no harm was done; this is not a medical emergency.
The Skill Level of the Herbalist
Along this same line of thinking is how the health condition fits with the skill level of the herbalist. Are you competent to work with a migraine, sinus issues, hot flashes, mosquito bites, tummy aches? Is the required care home-based or does it need to be given in a clinical setting? Each condition calls for a different skill set. Better to err on the side of caution if unsure. As Aviva Romm likes to say, “When in doubt, check it out”.
Stopping Prescription Medication
Another safety issues arises when someone wishes to quit taking a prescription medication. This should only occur under the supervision of a medical doctor. Herbs are not direct substitutes for pharmaceuticals. This is especially important for medical conditions such as high blood pressure or depression. While it is possible to slowly change from a drug that stops the symptoms to using an herb which is helping to correct an imbalance, it takes time and should be supervised by both a doctor and an experienced clinical herbalist.
Combining Herbs and Drugs
Looking at the use of pharmaceuticals once more, is the combination of modern medicine (either OTC or prescriptions) and herbal formulas. Many herbs have been used safely for centuries, but they have only recently been combined with newer drugs. This is an ever evolving and fast changing field.
One possibility is to consult with the doctor about combining these two approaches. This will be most helpful if the doctor has both experience and training in using herbs and pharmaceuticals. While this was unheard of twenty years ago, it is gradually becoming more common. Dr. Andrew Weil, MD is a well known example as is my first herb teacher, Dr. Tieraona Lowdog, MD.
Another option is to do one’s own research. A good place to begin is “Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions” by Francis Brinker, ND. I have used this for several years now and have found it to be very helpful. The only drawback is the need for constant revision and updating information as new drugs come on the market and new research is published. The newest, 4th edition, was published in November, 2010. The earlier editions are easily found but have dated information.
Is the Herb as Advertised?
Make sure the herb is unadulterated and correctly labeled. This is rare enough that I have never personally encountered this problem in 20+ years of practice. It does, however, occur and has caused major safety issues. The adulteration may make the herb simply less potent or may even be be from a toxic plant.
To address this issue, the courses at our school emphasize either growing your own herbs or learning how to responsibly wildcraft. In my opinion, this is the highest form of herbalism; ingesting plant medicines that have been grown, harvested and prepared by the user. Quality control does not get any better than this.
Allergies and Sensitivities
The last safety issue to consider is allergies and individual sensitivities. Using herbs is a very personal experience. Even though the information presented in our classes is based either on modern research or long term experiences, your interaction with the plant may be different.
Mullein is one example. Many people know this common yellow flowered, fuzzy leaved stalk that is widespread throughout the United States and is especially common in recovering burned areas around Flagstaff. Many nature guides describe it as ‘hiker’s toilet paper’. It is one of my favorite plants to use in respiratory conditions and is in many herbal cough syrups. It is often thought of as a mild, benign, gentle acting plant with no major contra-indications or safety issues.
What isn’t as well known is that some people break out in a skin rash when they come in contact with the fuzzy leaf hairs. One former student worked with herbs full time in the retail sector. She had to wear long sleeves and gloves whenever she handled mullein. While it wasn’t a serious medical condition, it did require extra precautions to avoid the itchy rash. I wish more folks were aware of this before they used it for forest TP!
Good advice is to do some homework before using a new herb. Ask others who have used it, read dependable references. And always use a very small amount initially to see how your body reacts.
In the alternative health community, herbs are often one of the major forms of health care. Using these safety guidelines can help make our plant interactions both more effective and safer for all.