Most popular medicinal herbs are reasonably safe for most people most of the time when taken in recommended amounts. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels them as G.R.A.S. – Generally Regarded As Safe.
But remember herbs do contain pharmacologically active compounds that have drug effects on the body when taken in medicinal doses. They, therefore, can potentially cause harm – allergic reactions, side effects, possible fetal injury, interactions with other herbs and drugs, and death.
It cannot be overemphasized enough that overall, herbs are safer than drugs, but they are potent medicine, and anyone who uses them should do so cautiously and responsibly. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a master herbalist to use medicinal herbs safely. All you need is a little information and some common sense.
You should know the following ten safety guidelines by heart. Study them with intent and make them part and parcel of your approach to herbology.
As you study herbology in more depth you’ll soon find out that some of them can be considered as commandments; others merely as guidelines.
1. Before you take any herb, read up on it
Don’t just listen to friends and relatives. Do your own research. The information in this online course is a good starting point. Take any warnings seriously. When in doubt about the appropriateness of the herb for your condition, don’t use it. Limit your use to those herbs that are widely recommended in popular herb books.
2. Don’t take herb identity for granted
Only buy herbs and herb products that identify the herb by its Latin binomial name – that is, genus and species. For example, thyme’s binomial name is Thymus vulgaris. You’ll learn more about botanical names in another lesson.
3. Stick with the recommended dosage, and never exceed it
Some people assume that if a little herb is good, more must be better. Wrong. Herbal dosage recommendations are based on centuries of clinical experience and, often, scientific research.
If you are over age 65, start with a low dose. As we grow older, we become more sensitive to medicinal herbs and drug effects. In addition, older people often take other medications. You don’t want to risk adverse herb-drug interactions. Rather increase the dose gradually.
Side note: Dosages are discussed in detail in the Advanced Herbal Medicine Making Course.
4. Respect your individuality
We are all different. You may be allergic to one or more herbs or you may develop other unusual reactions. Stay alert for any adverse reactions such as abdominal upset, diarrhea, itching, rash, headache – anything out of the ordinary. If you notice any unusual symptoms that appear to be linked to the herb, stop taking it and discuss your reaction(s) with your health care provider.
Even if you are not allergic, you may still be unusually sensitive to one or more medicinal herbs. Doctors refer to this as an idiopathic reaction. Idiopathic means “for unknown reasons” – in other words just one of those things. Out of the blue, you may react badly to a herb that’s generally considered safe. It happens.
5. If you are pregnant or nursing, use herbs with caution
It is a persistent medical principle that one should refrain from using medicines during pregnancy unless absolutely necessary.
Fortunately, the issues are less worrisome for the use of herbal remedies than they are for conventional drugs.
Nevertheless, herbalists still refrain from medicating where possible, and then they prefer herbs that are positively vetted as good. Again, do your research.
6. Don’t give herbal remedies to children under age 2
While some herbalists contend that herbal remedies are okay for children 6 months and older, we take a more conservative position. Use your discretion and apply the recommendations.
7. Think twice before jumping on a herbs bandwagon
Be cautious about unusual or new foreign remedies that have not stood the test of long-term use. Be extra careful when taking an old popular herb with a new “breakthrough” use. A good case in point is St. John’s wort which flew off the shelves of stores when it was shown to have an important new benefit as an antidepressant. What people did not know was the adverse interaction of St. John’s wort with drugs like protease inhibitors and cyclosporine.
8. Never on Sunday’s
Always challenge a treatment: if after several weeks it is thought that the herb is useful, or even if there are doubts, stop the herb for a period of time and see if it is still necessary. Take the herb for six days, then break a day. Or take it for four weeks and then break a week. Whichever time scale you decide on, you must challenge the treatment.
9. Use your common sense
Never persist with any herbal remedy after a moderate period of time (preferably no more than several weeks, a couple of months at the outside) if it is not clearly improving the condition concerned. Contrary to popular belief, most herbs do not take months to work their magic, it is the condition that sets the pace; if it is going to take months to correct professional advice would, in any case, be preferable.
10. Consult your health care provider
In most cases, you can safely treat any ailment for which you normally would have opted for over-the-counter remedies, without getting professional advice, with herbal remedies. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Our position is that you should in all cases consult your doctor and/or minister/pastor. Be especially careful of self-diagnosis. It may land you in the hospital and/or cost you your life or soul. See The Family Herbalist’s Herbal Therapeutic Index for conditions that can safely be treated at home.
The importance of using herbs safely cannot be emphasized enough. To increase your own ability to use herbs safely summarize the above in your own words. Then share your most important one below.