Herbs are best used in moderation to gently support and maintain health while protecting the body against disease. Used sensibly, most, but not all, herbs have an excellent safety record based on centuries of human use as medicines and foods. However, always use these powerful plants under the supervision of a qualified health-care practitioner — self-medication carries risks.
To put the issue of safety in relative terms, consider that every ingested substance carries some degree of risk. As with any substance, including foods, it’s possible for one person to have an allergic or otherwise unusual reaction to an herb that most people can use without problems. This is a common phenomenon in medicine as well as in the culinary arts. Documented herb allergies are uncommon, but not unknown. For example, people who are allergic to ragweed and other plants in the family Asteraceae are cautioned to avoid chamomile, but only a relatively few cases of chamomile allergy have actually been reported.
The vast majority of herbs are safe and nontoxic when used as directed by a knowledgeable health-care professional — but note that this does not include a helpful clerk in a health food store or content on a Web site. Most professionals who work with herbs have undertaken many years of formal training to learn all there is to know about the plants they use and their effects — both beneficial and potentially harmful — on people, as well as the interactions of herbal remedies with other medications a person could be taking. That professional will advise you when to begin taking an herb and when to suspend use, if need be.
Certain individuals, including pregnant women, children, people with serious health conditions (such as high blood pressure, chronic illnesses, liver problems, or kidney disease), and those taking pharmaceutical drugs should always consult a physician before using herbs.
Many of the problems reported with herbs in recent years can be attributed to what amounts to “herb abuse” — such as taking large doses of ephedra (Ephedra sinica) for weight loss or energy enhancement. Using herbs in high doses to enhance weight loss or sports performance is not a wise use of plant remedies, nor is it in keeping with traditional herb applications.
With some herbal remedies, such as stimulant laxatives, the same chemical compounds that offer medicinal effects in small doses can cause harmful side effects in larger doses or with chronic use. Use stimulant laxatives in moderation. Occasional short-term use is fine, but long-term use can cause your bowels to lose their ability to function without help. Chronic use can also lead to dangerous fluid depletion, electrolyte imbalances, and other problems. Herbal stimulant laxatives include cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana), senna (Senna alexandrina), purging buckthorn (R. cathartica), alder buckthorn (R. frangula), Chinese rhubarb (Rheum officinale, R. palmatum), and the dried latex from the leaves (not the gel) of the aloe plant (Aloe vera).
Some herbs are toxic if used in large doses, and certain herbs are so potent that they simply shouldn’t be used as remedies under any circumstances. So become as educated as possible about an herb before you take it. If in doubt about the safety of any herb or herbal remedy, be sure to consult a qualified herbalist, reputable herbal guidebook, or your local poison control center, which can provide information about the toxicity of plants ingested by people.
From the earliest days of human civilization, settlement, and agriculture — and certainly for many millennia before the advent of recorded history — plants have been essential to humans. From what undoubtedly were our first food sources — wild grasses, leaves, fleshy roots, and fruits — to the herbs that healed us and soothed our souls, plants have influenced our development as a species.
Modernization has taken many of us far from the gardens, fields, forests, and wilderness areas where so many healing plants can be found. Today, through movements such as integrative medicine and a rebirth of interest in traditional practices, many people are taking more responsibility for their health and wellness. Herbs and botanical remedies are an essential part of the path to a higher quality of life.