Print Friendly
I asked Angela, a talented writer, mother, and certified herbalist, to discuss with us some safety considerations to use with natural herbal medicine. You can find Angela and her wonderful herbal knowledge at Mama Rosemary.
_____________________________________________________________
herbal medicine safety
The quaint yet powerful herbal medicines of our forebears are becoming increasingly popular in modern culture.  And rightfully so, herbal medicine is considered “the people’s medicine.”  Folks want to use herbs for treating their aliments as well as to increase their overall health.  It is such a beautiful thing because herbs are powerful and can offer safer, often more effective ways to heal our woes and care for our bodies.  Yet, it is important to know how to use herbs safely because herbs are powerful, some more than others, and when used inappropriately can cause problems.

Safety Basics

General Safety 

People often make the mistake of thinking herbs are completely safe because they are a natural products.  While others consider herbs unsafe due to lack of testing and regulation.  The truth is that just as with anything there are benefits and risks with using herbs.  How can you reap the benefits of using herbs while lowering, if not eliminating risks?
To use herbs safely, there are a few things to consider.  First please be aware that any plant or substance can cause irritation and even dangerous reactions in certain individuals.  As Rosemary Gladstar points out, “Strawberries are sweet nectar to some and noxious to others.  This doesn’t make the berry toxic; it’s just a poor choice for that particular individual”1  
When starting with a new herb or formula try it in a small dose first to see how your body reacts and then go from there.  If you are unsure about using a botanical you might consider doing a scratch test before ingestion the herb.

The Scratch Test 

If you are a very sensitive individual, doing a scratch test before taking any new herbs can help you find out if the herb you are considering ingesting or putting on your skin will cause an undesired reaction.  To do a scratch test, take a small bit of the medicinal and rub it on the roof of your mouth or on your inner arm.  Wait 24 hours.  If there is no sign of an allergic reaction, proceed with taking the herb(s).   If you are unsure, please consult a qualified herbalist and as always listen to your body.
A Not So Lovely Tale ~  One day an aspiring herbalist excitedly preparing to have her fellow classmates over for a study group prepared a lovely dish of elderberry dumplings.  She had read that while elderberry seeds can cause digestive disturbance, most people do fine with the seeds and experience no adverse side effects when eaten in a dish such as her dumplings.  So she told everyone present about the potential issue and everyone there decided to indulge anyways.  And indulgent it was because the dumplings were delightful!  Everyone laughed and enjoyed the dumplings until a short while later when one of their number began to get a stomach ache which quickly evolved into strong spasmodic cramping and passage of the elderberry seeds in just over an hour from ingestion.  This soul suffered much during the rapid passage of the seeds.  Everyone else was completely fine.  Everyone that is except for the aspiring herbalist who was extremely humbled and extremely apologetic with a valuable lesson learnt, not every herb is for every person.

Guidelines For Using Herbs

  • First and foremost, always listen to your body which will help guide you towards the best herbs for you!
  • Educate Yourself!  Do research and ask questions.  There is a lot of information about herbs floating around on the internet.  Try to find reputable sources for your information.  See Resources.
  • Be patient, it takes time to get to know these amazing plants and find your unique path.
  • Most herbs are safe for most folks when preparation and dosage guidelines are followed.
  • Stop taking a herb or preparation if you notice any adverse reactions.
  • Use herbs prepared in the most traditional way possible.
  • Buy herbs from reputable companies that really care about what they are selling and are not just out to make a buck.  Some of my favorites are Herb PharmWishgarden HerbsMountain Rose Herbs and Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary and Supply.
  • Be sure to address lifestyle factors that may be affecting your health.  For example herbs can do little to help heal the lungs of an habitual smoker.  As Michael Moore aptly put it, “Certainly herbs alone cannot bring relief to individuals whose very life style may be the cause of their illness.”2  So to get the most out of using herbs, stop smoking, eat a whole foods diet and drink plenty of fresh water, exercise, sleep and stress-less.

When To Use Extra Special Care 

There are certain times in life when extra caution with herbs is advisable.  When working with children, woman who are pregnant or breastfeeding, the elderly, those who are chronically or acutely ill with a life threatening illness and those who are on prescription medications; certainly warrant special care.  Herbs can offer wonderful support for these life stages when used appropriately.

~ A few guidelines for these special times in life ~

  • Children:  Children are often more sensitive to herbs than adults and may require less to help them heal.  So, start with smaller, frequent doses (rather than a large dose all at once) and keep an eye on how your child is reacting to the herbs.  When working with kids dosing is important.  Follow one of these two rules ~ Clark’s Rule which is based on the assumption that most herb dosages are designed for a 150 lb adult. 3  To figure dosage with this rule, divide your child’s weight by 150.  For example if your child weighs 40 lbs (40/150 = .267) than the dosage would be about 1/4 of the adult dosage.  Another way to figure dosage is to use Young’s Rule which is based on age.  Add 12 to the child’s age then divide the resulting sum by the child’s age.  And example for an 8 year old is 10+12 = 22, 10/20 = .50 or 1/2 of the adult dosage. 4
  • Pregnancy & Breastfeeding: There is no doubt that herbs offer mothers-to-be and new mom’s special support during this amazing time in life.  Generally safe herbs to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding are nutritive and tonic herbs while it is wise to be very careful about taking strong or stimulating herbs.  I highly recommend investing in a good book that can offer you guidance both in safety but also in addressing any particular needs you have.  See resources below for recommendations.
  • Elderly:  During these years the body begins to slow down including digestive and elimination processes.  Therefore herbs are likely to stay in the body for longer.  This required consideration.  Again a good book will take you a long way.  Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal has a lovely chapter on working with elders and herbs.  Also trusted herbalist David Hoffman has a book, An Elders’ Herbal: Natural Techniques for Health and Vitality, I have not read this book but have no doubt it would be valuable for anyone working with herbs and the elderly.
  • Folks taking prescription medications:  If you take prescription drugs please work with  or talk to someone knowledgeable about combining herbs and pharmaceutical drugs.  This can be tricky business because herbs can and do interaction with drugs, so expert advice is warranted.

Viola odorata

Quality Matters   

Herbal medicines have a rich history that spans thousands of years of use by the peoples of the world offering a firm foundation of knowledge about herbal medicine.  The knowledge shows us the most effective, often the safest ways to use herbs.  Unfortunately some of our current herbal usage is no longer supported by the empirical evidence from our ancestors.  Herbs are being prepared and used in ways never before seen in human history.

“We are now able to ingest herbs in tremendously potent forms.  In the past herbs were most often taken as teas, tinctures and syrups,  But herbal capsules, which make it easy for us to swallow as much herbs as we wish , and standardized preparations which contain extracts of herbal constituents that are far more concentrated than nature ever intended, have not been available until recently.”5   ~ Rosemary Gladstar

These new stronger forms are much more likely to have unknown side effects simply because we do not have thousands of years of usage to help guide us and alert us to important contraindications.  Therefore, using herbs, when possible, in a way that is close to nature and to time-tested traditional usage helps to eliminate the new unknowns created by modern manufacturing.

Please Note ~ Many folks buy these potent new products feel comforted by the “testing” and standardization they have under gone.  While, many standardized herbal preparations can be helpful for people and have their place, they are very strong and directions for dosage on packaging needs to be followed to stay safe.

Finding the Right Herb For You

Each plant with it’s beautiful myriad of biochemical compounds and subtle energetics offers a specific use and when that plant is paired with a individual fitting that specific set of indications, it is truly like magic.  How do you find this pairing?  That is the work of the herbalist, of the practitioner.  As the esteemed herbalist Michael Moore put it, “there are no fixed methods to apply to the human predicament, there is no single all-pervasive rule to follow, since medicine is not a science but an art.”6  Yet, who knows you and your body better than you?  As you find your way in the amazing world of herbs you will begin to find the herbs that work best for you.  A great way to really get to know herbs is to try the one at time as a “simple” instead of in combination.  Make and drink an infusion from one herb for a few days to see how it really feels in your body.

Finding Quality Herbs

The quality of the herbs of herbs you use is of the utmost importance!  The best ingredients make the best medicine.  Most herbalists feel that wildcrafted and homegrown herbs offer the best medicine.  We are lucky to have many companies that sell high quality herbs when we can’t harvest them ourselves.
When buying dried bulk herbs to make your creations there are a few important guidelines to follow.  Look at the plant material, it should have a vivid, bright and appropriate color.  It should not appear faded and it should be fragrant.  Over time, with experience, making these observations will become easy and enjoyable.
Make sure you are buying the correct botanical.  It is important to identify the plant material you are purchasing by it’s Latin name because so many plants have the same or similar folk names.  Every herb has it’s own unique Latin name.  For example, if you are searching for nettles, you can verify that you are getting nettles by looking for it’s Latin name Urtica dioica.  Of course whenever possible, buy organic or ethically wildcrafted herbs for the best quality and to support a healthy planet.

A Bit Of Helpful Guidance For Choosing Plants 

So now you know how to find high quality herbs, how do you know which ones are safe?  Well, first and foremost doing your research on any herb you are considering taking will help you know if the herb is likely to be helpful as well as potential contraindications and side effects to be wary of.  To help you get off on the right foot here is a very brief break down of some of the most common herbs used in western herbalism.7  I will not go into the most dangerous class of plants which are on the edge of being toxic and, luckily, are not commonly available in commerce.

 Nourishing Plants 

These are the safest herbs to use with generally no side effects.  They are like food and can be taken for long periods of time.
Examples Include:
  • Nettles (Urtica dioica)
  • Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
  • Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Violet Leaf (Viola odorata)
  • Oat Straw & Seed (Avena sativa)
  • Seaweeds
  • Dandelion Leaf (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

 Tonic Plants 

These support the body way down deep at a cellular level and act slowly taking six weeks to six months to help the body balance it’s own energy.
Examples Include:
  • Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinus edodes)
  • Chaste Tree  (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Raspberry Leaf (Rubus idaeus)
  • Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
  • Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
  • Red Root (Ceanothus americanus)

Stimulating/Sedating Plants

These are like medicine and have a quick action.  They may have side effects.
Examples Include:
  • Echinacea (Echinancea angustifolia, E. purpurea & E. pallida)
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
  • Usnea (Usnea spp.)
  • Sage (Saliva officinalis)
  • Osha (Ligusticum porteri)
  • Most Essential Oils

How I use herbs safely 

So, how do I use herbal medicines safely?  My general usage of herbs revolves around using plants in the most natural state as makes sense.  What does that mean?  It means that I choose a to take elderberry syrup instead of elderberry tablets.  When possible, I drink a cup of tea for my cold rather than take an encapsulated, standardized formula.  A lot of my work with herbs as been with myself during pregnancy and breastfeeding as well as with children so I tend to use mostly use nutritive herbs.  When I feel the need to use something stronger or something I am not as familiar with I do my research and if the herb still seems appropriate, I approach it slowly and with respect, noting how the herb feels in my body.  Further, one of my beloved teachers, Rebecca Luna, sagely told us one day in class to never recommend something to a person that you haven’t tried on yourself so you can see how it feels and know how it works.  To this day, I follow this important bit of advice as close as possible.
May you enjoy walking this truly beautiful path, a path that is by birth on our lovely Mama Earth your right!

***Announcing Natural Herbal Living Magazine 2013***

Do you love herbs? Do you want to learn to build a wonderful lasting relationship with twelve herbs a year? You will learn all about the herb, essential oil, flower essence, then you get to learn all about how several different experienced herbalists use this wonderful herb.

PLUS by pre-ordering on Kickstarter, you save money! Who doesn’t love saving money?

Read more about this great magazine coming out September 2013 here!

Lemon Balm

Resources 

A Few Helpful Websites 

Favorite Trusted Herbalists

Many of these herbalists have very useful information on their websites and offer very trustworthy advice indeed.

Books 

These are some wonderful books I have found through the years, though this list is by no means exhaustive.

General Herbals 

 Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

Children 

Sources:

Citations:

  1.  Gladstar, Rosemary, Family Herbal, pg. 4
  2. Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, pg. 11
  3. Linda B. White, Linda B., Mavor, Sunny, Kids, Herbs, & Health, pg. 22
  4. Gladstar, Rosemary, Family Herbal, pg. 169
  5. Gladstar, Rosemary, Family Herbal, pg. 4
  6. Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, pg. 11
  7. Jones, Feather, Class Notes From The Rocky Mtn. Center For Botanical Studies, 1999.

PLEASE NOTE ~ All the information in the post is my opinion based on my schooling and experience as well as research done to the best of my ability and in good faith.  It is in no way intended as a substitute for medical assistance and common sense.

 

mewbabynyssa - EditedAngela Justis is a certified herbalist, mother of two girls and preschool teacher with a background in science, botany and nutrition.  Plants, children and healthy, inspired living are her passion.  She shares herbal ideas, tips and informations for mamas and their families as well as fun herbal craft and science ideas for working (playing) with children at mamarosemary.com.
Disclaimer General Health disclosure affiliate links

About Amanda

Amanda is a mother of two amazing toddlers. She is an herbalist, natural living guru, and real food, gluten free eating pro. She loves to help educate others on how to take control of their own health through natural living, real food, herbs, essential oils, and most of all - a positive mind set. Her other business Natural Herbal Living Magazine is all about helping people learn about how to use one herb a month on a deep and profound level.
Share →

11 Responses to Herbal Medicine Safety Considerations

  1. […] News!  This week I am guest posting about using herbal medicines safely over at Natural Living Mama.  Hop on over and check it […]

  2. Great post! Thank you for sharing at Wildcrafting Wednesday!

  3. […] Before using any herbs you are unfamiliar with, take the time to read my post on Herbal Medicine Safety Considerations. […]

  4. Eden Rivera says:

    I also believe to the goodness that herbal medicines can brought to us. Thank you for sharing your ideas about herbal medicines. I did enjoy reading your article and hope to read more of your works soon.

  5. Lauren says:

    Great info Amanda!

  6. […] As always, when using herbs take into account basic herbal medicine safety considerations. […]

  7. […] read more about this important topic please visit Natural Living Mamma were I shared a guest post on this […]

  8. […] working with any herbs, please take these basic herbal medicine safety considerations in […]

  9. […] working with any herbs, please take these basic herbal medicine safety considerations in […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *