Medicinal Herbs Safety Guidelines

Medicinal herbs, and their extracts, have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties. Many traditional uses are based on superstition, or spiritual basis, with no clinical trials or research to support the results. Some traditional medicinal herb use is based on trial and error, and is supported by real-world, results based evidence. Traditional medicine is based strongly in herbal remedies, whether supported by real-world results or spiritual basis.

Western medicine is beginning to look at the use of herbal remedies as alternatives to synthetic drugs as well. Most modern pharmaceuticals have a historical base in herbal medicine, and many are derived from herbal extracts, at least initially.

Many people choose to use herbal supplements in their overall health routine. Some people choose herbal remedies over prescription drug therapies because of the perceived safety of these remedies. While these treatments are natural, they are not always safe. It is important to approach a new herbal treatment or supplement routine the same way you approach any treatment, with caution and good research.

Herbs Safety Guidelines

First, it is important to remember that herbal remedies are medicine. They must be approached like any other medicine. Each person will react to an herbal medicine a little differently. Some people may have allergic reactions to certain herbs, ranging from mild to severe anaphylactic reactions. Herbal medicines should be stored in a safe, secure location just like all other medications. Herbal medicines may interact with other drugs, or may have specific side effects that exacerbate certain conditions, and therefore should be disclosed to your doctor or other medical staff, just like any drug medication.

Special Populations

herbs safety

Medicinal Herbs safety Guidelines

Certain people may be more susceptible to the adverse effects of some herbal supplements. These people may not know how they will react to herbs until they try them. There are certain populations that must use extra caution when using herbal supplements. These people should always research the herbs they intend to use and consult their physician before starting any treatment program.

Pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding and even those trying to become pregnant should be careful with herbal supplements. Many medications, herbal or otherwise, can easily cross the placental barrier and reach the developing infant or pass through the bloodstream into breast milk and be delivered to an infant that way.

Children are another group who need to use caution with herbal supplementation. There are many medicinal herbs that may be beneficial to children but they must be taken with caution. It is a common misconception when it comes to medications that children are just small adults. This is not true, they metabolize medications differently and their bodies react differently. Their lack of exposure to many substances also increases the chance for an unexpected allergic reaction.

Elderly people also metabolize medications differently, and generally are on more medications, and therefore must also exercise caution when trying new herbal treatments. Underlying ailments that may affect the body’s ability to process or absorb medications are also an issue.

People with certain medical conditions should approach medicinal herbs with caution. Diabetics, people with cardiovascular conditions, respiratory patients, cancer patients (especially those undergoing chemotherapy), people with kidney or liver ailments, or those with immune conditions should consult their physician before using any herbal treatments. Herbs may interact with the medications a person is already taking to combat their illness.

Consult With Your Physician

Before starting a new treatment program it is important to consult with a physician. This holds true for herbal treatments, as well as exercise and diet changes. Herbal medicines may interact with other drug therapies or herbal treatments. A physician may be able to guide your treatment program and monitor your reaction to certain therapies. It is important to let your physician know all of the vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements.

Some herbs may affect the rate that the body absorbs certain medications. They may also cause the body to get rid of the medications quicker. Some cause a reduction in the effect of certain medications, while others cause an increase in the effect. Many herbal remedies mimic the effects of certain pharmaceutical treatments and, therefore, taking them with those drugs may cause the potential for overdosing. A physician may be able to adjust the dosage or schedule of certain treatments to make up for the addition of herbal supplements.

It is important to note that not all physicians are familiar with all herbal supplements. You may want to research the herbal remedies and present this information to your physician. The physician may have the necessary information on any pharmaceutical treatments but not all the possible herbal treatments. An herbal specialist may be able to help you with this information and even direct you toward the right herbs for your specific needs.

Research the Herbs

Researching the herbs, whether for your own information or for convincing your physician, can be accomplished using many different sources. Some stores offer information resources for the products they sell. Many online stores offer articles and information right on their site to help consumers make informed decisions about the products. The internet offers a multitude of other opportunities to research herbs and herbal supplements. It is important to check multiple sources to make sure you are getting all the information and not just information directed by a particular supplement company. The library is another great resource for herbal information. Lastly, practitioners of traditional medicine and herbal medicine specialists are good sources of information on many herbal supplements and their uses.

Standards for Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplements are not controlled by regulatory boards like pharmaceutical medications are. Many herbal extracts are standardized for their active ingredients. This allows a comparison between brands. Since the active ingredients are what cause the effects associated with the herbs, it is important to know how much of the active ingredients are in each supplement. The issue with herbal supplements is that because there are no regulations on the herbal claims it is hard to determine what is true and what is hype.

Most companies that produce herbal supplements are reputable and only use what they list, however their label claims may be exaggerated or worded in a deceptive manner. Be wary of herbal supplements that make claims such as, “100% safe” or “Natural herbs produce no side effects.” Any herbal supplement that tries to claim it is “As good as…” or “Better than…” a prescription medication “without any side effects” should be approached with caution. Ask around and find out what supplements people have had success with and what ones get good reviews.

Dosing Safety

Many people fall into the trap of thinking that since an herbal supplement is natural it is safe to take as much as they want. Overdosing, or increased side effects, is just as possible with potent herbal medications as with any drug. “More is better” is a dangerous concept when applied to herbal supplements. It is important to research the safe dosages for any herb before taking it. It is also important to follow the manufacturer´s recommended dosage, as outlined on the bottle. This is due to the varying amounts of active ingredients in each supplement.

Thordur Sturluson
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Thordur Sturluson

A biologist, zoologist, scuba-diver, blogger and aspiring herbalist with interest in nature conservation, animal protection, herbal medicine and medicinal plants.
Thordur Sturluson
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