There is widespread perception amongst the general public that herbal medicines being “natural” must be entirely safe. There is nothing more misinterpreted. We have to remember that in order to influence human physiology, herbs have to interact with our physiological system in the same way other drugs do; otherwise they would have no effect. What is more, many plants are well known to be dangerous to human health with their toxicity, others can be unsafe if used during pregnancy, and some can interfere with conventional drugs. What does this mean? Before you reach for one you should consider: 1. what action this product has? 2. What possible interaction with the prescription drugs that you may be taking it could have, and 3. Where did it come from? Those are three very important questions you should raise. As a therapist I have seen and heard on many occasions about the lightness with which we approach this topic and the consequence an approach like that could bring. Herbal remedies are incredibly potent and very important to our health and wellbeing. I swear by them and cannot imagine my life without them – I cannot imagine life without plants in general (and of course it is not possible as such). But I also realise how powerful herbs are and the amount of knowledge that goes into herbal preparation.
Let us look a little closer into those questions.
- What action herbal remedies have – the answer is vast – multiple.
I believe there is a herb for every single disease that is tormenting humankind. We don’t know them all yet, and every single day we are losing precious resources with the destruction of the Rain Forests. It is our own fault and we should do everything in our power to stop that. There are precious herbs in every single garden – some call them healing aids, some common weeds. It all depends how you look at things. There are also very commonly known herbs like Chamomile for example. Everybody knows that Chamomile helps with digestion, period pains, bloating, intestinal pains, teething problems and of course insomnia, to name just a few. But did you know that it is a herb known to cause allergic reactions and that taking it over long periods of time without breaks can create an effect quite opposite to the expected. My friend was complaining about insomnia and nervous anxiety. She couldn’t understand why it was happening because she was drinking Chamomile tea every evening before bed. After talking to her I advised her to stop taking it for two weeks and see the difference. After a few days she was calm and sleeping well again.
Do you know parsley? Well, who doesn’t? It is not only a culinary wonder present in every single house, but also a powerful remedy used in treating gastrointestinal and urinary tract disorders. But did you know that “apiol” – the organic chemical compound present in the essential oils of celery leaf and all parts of parsley is held to be responsible for the abortifacient action, so should be avoided by pregnant women.
- Possible interactions between prescription drugs and herbs.
This is another important area to consider. What medication I am on and how herbal remedies can influence them, and of course vice versa. There is a huge interaction between herbs and prescription drugs. Some herbs complement prescription drugs and make them more effective, some work in quite the opposite way.
An UK patient developed severe phototoxity during oral photochemotherapy after eating a large quantity of soup made from celery, parsley and parsnip.
Do you know St John’s Wort? It is common knowledge that it is used to treat depression, nervous fatigue, also digestive problems. But did you know that you should avoid it while on the contraceptive pill, because St John’s Wort reduces the effectiveness of contraception and using it alongside very often ends in unexpected pregnancy. It also reacts with protease inhibitors used in HIV therapy and should be avoided by people suffering with HIV virus.
Another example off the top of my head – Garlic. Everybody knows the benefits, but did you know that Garlic should be avoided by people taking anticoagulant drugs (anticoagulant drugs reduce the ability of blood to clot, the most common is Warfarin) or taken only under specialist supervision. Also if you are scheduled for a surgery you should always tell the surgeon if you are taking garlic supplements – you may be asked to stop when you are getting ready for your surgery. You have to inform your doctor of any supplements taken. Another common herb that shouldn’t be used by people taking anticoagulant drugs is Ginger.
The examples are infinite and it is very important to know what to do before you will embark on a self-healing journey. It is best to seek specialist advice and find somebody properly trained.
- Where did your herbs come from?
Always try to buy organic. A properly trained herbalist will have his/her supplier that you could trust. Some grow their own herbs and prepare their own remedies. But if you decide to do it yourself remember these important facts.
- Know where the herbs come from. In the UK manufacturers are obliged to demonstrate quality, efficacy and safety of their product before they may be granted a licence. If you for example buy your herbs in Neal’s Yard Remedies you will get with your herbs all the necessary batch numbers to trace your herb back to the source. I am very sorry that you cannot say the same about herbs imported to the UK from China, India, Singapore or Taiwan. Very often those herbs are contaminated with toxic substances. The adulteration of those medicines with heavy metals (mercury, lead, and arsenic), toxic elements and synthetic drugs continues to be a significant international problem. Synthetic drugs added to herbal remedies are often caffeine, paracetamol, even Warfarin and antibiotics; topical creams are strengthened by illegal steroids. Against all the UK legislations the end product often finds its way into the UK market, so please be careful where you are buying your herbs from. With the ease of internet shopping you may find yourself in trouble, so remember – if something is too good to be true (price-wise for example), then it usually is – and you are putting your health on the line here. Other factors to consider are microbial contamination (bacteria and fungi present due to faulty growing, harvesting, storage and processing), pesticides, fumigants (ethylene oxide, methyl bromide and phosphine have been used to control pests which contaminate herbal ingredients. The use of ethylene oxide as a fumigant with herbal drugs is no longer permitted in Europe due to concerns about carcinogenic residues. There are concerns however that products imported from outside the EU may have been treated with this fumigant).
- You have to trust a fully trained therapist and be sure of the product.
– Make sure that you have in the bottle or bag exactly what is written on the package. There are a lot of examples in the past of people taken seriously ill after substitution of ingredients.
It all sounds rather worrying, but really it is sometimes enough to use your common sense. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who is not properly trained and you wouldn’t ask a 5 year old to put out a fire. Modern medicine wouldn’t be where is today without the help of herbal remedies. There are still some drugs that are not synthetic and can be extracted only from real plants. We need herbal remedies and we are lucky enough that we can access them without many problems. We just need to do it right. I hope this will help to do it just like that. Good luck on your herbal journey. And believe me – it is an amazing one.