My mom was no stranger to home remedies. She treated my sore throats with hydrogen peroxide and salt-water rinses, soothed my burns with ice packs, and she had a PhD in when to pop an acetaminophen or decongestant. But slathering aloe vera on my sunburns was about the extent of her herbal know-how. Likewise, in all my years of going to doctors, exactly one of them advised I take an herb. Dr. Dave wrote me a “prescription” for slippery elm tea for a sore throat when I was nineteen. At that point, I had no idea what a rarity Dr. Dave was. If herbs weren’t part of your mom or physician’s medicine cabinets either, dabbling with botanicals can be intimidating.
When you turn to herbal reference books or encyclopedias, herbs can be even more daunting. There are all those Latin names – urtica dioica, lippia citriodora, valeriana officinalis, scutellaria laterifolia. And they look so much alike. It’s hard to fathom you’d be able to tell licorice from indigo in the wild, let alone skullcap from its toxic look-alike germander or wild parsley from its poisonous doppelganger hemlock. Plus, there are so many of them – expectorants and demulcents, antibiotics and antiseptics, relaxants and stimulants, adaptogens and alteratives. Then there are all the scary warnings, like these from The New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey:
- Pasque flower: “CAUTION: This plant should only be used as prescribed by a qualified herbal practitioner.”
- Black Cohosh: “CAUTION: A powerful remedy only to be used by those experienced in herbal medicine.”
- Peony: “CAUTION: This plant is poisonous.”
It may be tempting to write medicinal herbs off as too complex and scary, or imagine that if medicinal herbs really worked, doctors would prescribe them instead of synthetic pills, some of which barely outperform placebos or have lists of known side effects.
But here’s the bottom line:
- Medicinal herbs have been powerful allies for health and healing for as long as humans have lived.
- Even the gentlest herbs can be extremely effective remedies, as anyone who has drunk a glass of ginger or peppermint tea for a stomachache can attest.
- Herbs are often inexpensive, safe alternatives to drugs.
- Adding medicinal herbs to your health arsenal – along with good nutrition, exercise, relaxation, and conventional medicine and pharmaceutical drugs when necessary – just makes good sense.
Herbs should not be treated simply as replacements for drugs.
Even when drugs are developed from plants, one ingredient is isolated to make the effect and dosage predictable. However, herbalists believe it’s better to take plants whole in most cases, because the herb’s different phytochemicals interact to enhance the therapeutic effects and dilute toxicity.
Consider the case of the herb meadowsweet and Aspirin. Aspirin was originally made by isolating the salicylates from meadowsweet. But while Aspirin can cause stomach irritation and gastric bleeding, meadowsweet does not. The tannins and mucilages in the herb buffer against the adverse effects of the salicylates. The effects of meadowsweet might not be as predictable, but the herb is effective and much safer.
So why isn’t my doctor recommending herbs?
Most American doctors don’t learn much about botanical medicine in their university training. Moreover, medical research is funded by big pharmaceutical companies, and large studies don’t tend to be done on herbal remedies. Pharmaceutical companies also have big bucks to market their products to physicians and directly to patients. But it’s hard for anyone to make big profits off the fragrant, healing plants in our backyard – some of which, like dandelions, grow whether we want them to or not – and the medical system in the U.S. is profit-driven.
In Europe, where medical systems are socialized, herbal medicine is more mainstream. The German government formed Commission E, a body of scientists, toxicologists, doctors, and pharmacists, to study herbs for safety and effectiveness in 1978. The result? German doctors regularly prescribe herbs like Valerian for anxiety, St. John’s Wort for depression, Vitex (chasteberry) for menstrual irregularities, and saw palmetto for enlarged prostrates.
Are medicinal herbs safe?
Ingesting herbs, like any food or medication, is not risk-free. It’s always a good idea to be cautious about what you’re putting in your body, especially when it comes to over-the-counter herbal supplements, because vitamin and herbal supplement manufacturers aren’t well-regulated in the U.S. Here are some good rules of thumb:
- Read widely about the herbs you want to take. Seek out books or websites written by reputable herbalists. I have a library of herbal reference books, and I consult all of them before I ingest anything.
- Buy herbs (in any form) only from trusted sources.
- If you’re taking any pharmaceutical medicines, consult with your physician before taking an herb to make sure its not contraindicated. Keep in mind that your doctor might not know much about herbs, and bring along some of your own research to discuss.
- Stop taking an herb if you’re not getting results.
- Periodically stop a treatment once your condition has improved to make sure you need to continue taking it.
- Don’t self-treat complex conditions.
- Take a small amount of a new herb, and be alert to undesired side-effects or allergic reactions. (In the very rare event that you experience trouble breathing within 30 minutes of taking anything – herb, drug, or food – call 911.)
While caution is a good idea, don’t overestimate the dangers from taking medicinal herbs. According to Dr. James A. Duke, a leading botanist and expert on medicinal plants, “herbs (usually through abuse or exceeding recommended dosage) are killing fewer than 100” people a year. (That’s less than one in a million of the people taking herbs regularly in the U.S.) Compare that with the Archive of Internal Medicine’s estimate of 90,000 serious injuries and deaths caused by prescription drugs in the U.S. each year. And a study conducted at the University of Toronto and reported in the Journal of American Medicine in April of 1998 estimated the number of deaths from pharmaceutical medications even higher at 106,000 a year.
Medicinal herbs don’t have to be complicated.
Where’s a beginner to start?
Many herbalists, including Susan Weed and Michael Tierra, recommend that you get to know plants one at a time. Pick one and use it in teas, salves, tinctures, and poultices. Build a basic foundation of knowledge about it, then move on to another. Herbalism used to be called “the art of simpling,” because most herbs are so versatile that any herb can heal you if you follow some basic principles.
In one of my favorite books about herbs, The Herbal Home Remedy Book, Joyce Wardwell lays out the four elements of simpling as follows:
- Use mild herbs. These plants are commonly used as foods. They’re safe for small children and the elderly, and they enhance the body’s capacity for healing.
- Use these mild herbs in large doses. Brew strong infusions, and drink them several times a day for days, weeks, and sometimes months.
- Use the herbs that grow near you. The herbs that grown in your climate are the best adapted for the stresses the climate puts on your body.
- Be patient. You’ll probably see some effects within three days or so, but sometimes it takes longer. If you use an herb for more than a week, take a rest one or two days a week to give your body a chance to restore equilibrium.
When you approach herbs as healing food-like beverages full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, they are also excellent additions to a healthy diet and lifestyle.Herbal medicine can be overwhelming. Here's a safe, easy way to benefit from herbs.Click To Tweet
Ready to make a simple herbal remedy? Check out my article Simple Herbal Tonics: Brews for Beginners.
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Do you already use medicinal herbs? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you sip on and why.