There’s little doubt that herbs offer many health and healing benefits for the body, mind, and spirit. However, the misuse of certain herbs can be just as dangerous as the misuse of over-the-counter and prescription medications. Using herbs safely is relatively simple. There are really only a few things you need to keep in mind when selecting and using an herb for the first time.
General Tips for Safe Herb Use
- Investigate any herb you intend to use in medicinal doses
- Be aware of possible allergies
- Consult your doctor, if you take prescription medication
- Start slow
Do Your Research!
It’s extremely important to investigate any herb you intend to use in medicinal doses. This includes herbs that you have consumed as spices in prepared meals. Never just accept what you are told about an herb by friends and family; your experience may differ greatly from theirs.
If you need to treat a specific ailment, do a Google search of that ailment with the word ‘herbs’ or the name of a specific herb. There are so many reliable online resources that suit this purpose. A few of my favorites are University of Maryland Medical Center, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, Dr. Axe, Dr. Weil, I could go on.
There are many reliable print resources as well. One of my favorites is The Earthwise Herbal Repertory: The Definitive Practitioner’s Guide by Matthew Wood. It’s the perfect guide for those who want to treat specific ailments. The repertory does not detail each and every herb. Like any other repertory, it’s only concern is detailing which herbs are useful for which ailments and symptoms, but it’s quite extensive in this regard. From there you can investigate each herb individually to decide which of a list of possible herbs you should try first.
To quote Michael Castleman, author of The Healing Herbs: The Ultimate Guide to the Curative Powers of Nature’s Medicine, “Don’t take herb identity for granted.” Many related plants have very similar names but have different and similar properties. You need to know what you are using and what to expect. It’s a safety issue. Always note both the common and latin names of the herbs you investigate and purchase.
Be Mindful of Possible Allergies
If you have food allergies you should check that any herbs you use medicinally are not members of the same family. For example, if you are allergic to tomatoes you’d want to avoid other members of the nightshade family. This would include potatoes, peppers, eggplants and medicinal herbs like belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade) and goji berries.
Are you destined to have an allergic reaction to another member of the same plant family? No, of course not. I know someone who is allergic to peppers and tomatoes, but not to potatoes. But, it is a possibility and something you need to keep in mind when selecting herbs for medicinal use.
Consult Your Doctor to Avoid Drug Interactions
If you are being treated for a chronic condition – diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or migraines – it’s very important to consult your doctor before taking any herb (or nutritional supplement). Even if you are not being treated for a chronic ailment, but you are taking prescription medication(s), it’s important to keep your doctor informed
~ Create a list of all herbs and nutritional supplements you are currently taking and the amounts per day,
~ Discuss any herbs or supplements that you are considering for future use,
~ Never discontinue doctor prescribed medication without consulting your doctor first, and
~ Report ALL of your symptoms; being secretive can have dire consequences.
Yes, I understand that many conventional doctors are opposed to alternative medicines and even nutritional supplements and may try to discourage your use of them. I’ve had doctors like that. The only thing you need to remember when dealing with such physicians is that you are the customer patient and you have choices. Your doctor knows this and, now, so do you.
We don’t have to choose between conventional medicine and alternatives, we can use both successfully. There are many herbs that have proven useful when used in concert with pharmaceutical drugs for certain ailments, and this fact was discovered by bonafide scientists. So, you may find that it’s quite easy to replace a closed-minded doctor with an open-minded one these days.
Start with the Smallest Useful Dose
When using an herb for the first time start slow. Always take the smallest useful amount and slowly increase over weeks. For example, if the optimum amount recommended is one teaspoon of an herb per day you should use ¼ of a teaspoon per day for the first week, ½ teaspoon of herb per day for the second week, ¾ teaspoon of herb the third week, and at week four begin using the full teaspoon of herb henceforth.
This may seem like a waste of time to some, but starting slow helps you learn more about the herb. It’s an easy way to determine whether an herb is safe for you to take (in case of an allergy), monitor your reactions to the herb (side-effects), and determine if you really need the full recommended dose or a lower one to receive the desired health benefits.
Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe, but herbs used wisely and well can be. Always follow directions and heed warnings. And don’t assume that if a little is good a lot will be better. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to emergency room visits. Never exceed recommended doses.
Using herbs safely is simple, and really only requires a bit of patience, willingness to learn and a bit of common sense.