Adapted from The New Healing Herbs
To use healing herbs safely, you don't need to be a doctor or master herbalist. All that's required is a little information.
Follow these steps to make sure you're not jeopardizing your own health:
Don't just listen to family and friends. Each herb profiled in my book, The New Healing Herbs, contains extensive information on safety and side effects. Take warnings seriously. When in doubt about using any herb for any reason, don't use it until you've consulted a health professional.
Look for products that identify herbs by their Latin binomials—genus and species. For example, garlic's binomial is Allium sativum. Latin binomial identification is no guarantee that the herb is labeled properly. But it suggests that the marketer understands the importance of proper identification and has taken steps to do that.
Some people assume that if a little is good, more must be better. Wrong. Don't put yourself at risk by taking overdoses. Whenever using commercial preparations—teas, tincture, pills, or capsules—follow the label directions carefully.
Individuals vary. You may be allergic to one or more herbs or develop other unusual reactions (yes, even to herbs scientifically proven to ease allergies). When you take herbal medicines, stay alert for adverse reactions such as abdominal upset, diarrhea, headache, itching, rash—anything out of the ordinary. If you notice unusual symptoms soon after taking a medicinal herb, stop and discuss your reaction(s) with your doctor.
Generally, those who suffer allergies (hay fever, hives), those with illnesses often linked to allergies (asthma, eczema), and those who have experienced serious, potentially fatal allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).
The main symptom is difficulty breathing. If you develop any trouble breathing, call your emergency medical number immediately and tell the operator that you're experiencing suspected anaphylaxis. Then give your address and phone number and follow the operator's directions.
Even if you're not allergic, you may still be unusually sensitive to one or more medicinal herbs, in doctor-speak an "idiopathic" reaction, meaning "for unknown reasons"—just one of those things. Out of the blue, you may react badly to an herb that's generally considered safe. It happens.
If things go awry and you suspect that an herb is to blame, stop taking it and consult your physician.
As people grow older, they often become more sensitive to drug effects, so a low dose might suffice (for example, this Alzheimer's-fighting spice). In addition, older people often take other medications. Starting with a low dose of medicinal herbs reduces the risk of adverse herb-drug interactions. You can always increase the dose later.
With a few exceptions, such as raspberry or ginger, women who are pregnant or nursing should not take medicinal amounts of healing herbs. Herbs that cause no problems for adults may still harm the unborn and newborns (so make sure they're on this pregnancy safe list). Moms-to-be and nursing moms who wish to try herbal medicines should do so only in consultation with their health care providers. That's the best way to have a safe pregnancy.
While some herbalists contend that herbal medicines are okay for children 6 months and older, this book takes a more conservative position (Herbs for Babies: Are They Safe?). As gentle as most herbs are, they're usually not appropriate for the very young. The few exceptions include cinnamon, chamomile, cranberry, dill water, and ginger—and even these should be given cautiously.
Standard herb doses are appropriate for a 150-pound person. A child who weighs 50 pounds should get one-third of the adult dose.
Exercise caution when using herbs if you already take pharmaceuticals or other herbs (and make sure you're not mixing these meds that could put you in danger). Do not duplicate a drug's effects with herbs. If you're already taking an antidepressant drug, don't use the herbal antidepressant St. John's wort (or these other anxiety-fighting herbs) without consulting your doctor. If you're taking a pharmaceutical blood thinner (anticoagulant) such as aspirin, don't add anticoagulant garlic or white willow to your treatment plan. If you're already taking a tranquilizer or an anti-anxiety medication, steer clear of herbal tranquilizers: kava, passionflower, skullcap. Or switch from tranquilizers to calming herbs.
Be extra careful when taking any newly popular herb or any old herb with a new use. In the mid-1990s, when the age-old herb St. John's wort was shown to have antidepressant action, it flew off the shelves. As the number of users jumped into the millions, rare side effects that strike only one person in a million suddenly began showing up. That's how doctors identified St. John's wort's interactions with several pharmaceuticals. Until the herb became popular, too few people took it for these problems to be noticed.
Aromatic herbs' essential or volatile oils are highly concentrated, and small amounts may cause serious harm. For example, as little as a teaspoon of pennyroyal oil can cause death. Many herbal oils are available commercially. They are best used topically. If you ingest any, take only a drop or two at a time. Keep herbal oils well out of the reach of children.
If you develop stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, headache, or dizziness within a few hours of taking any healing herb, stop taking it and see if your symptoms subside. When in doubt, call your local Poison Control Center or your physician or pharmacist. If you experience a severe reaction, call your local emergency number immediately.
In any medical consultation, tell the doctor which herbs you take and why. Forthrightness helps prevent potentially harmful herb-drug interactions. (It also helps educate doctors about herbs.)