Mazimising Herb Safety

Although the majority of herbs are safe to use under any circumstances, here are a few tips to make them even safer.

Five basic safety guidelines

Everyone must be sensible when using herbs, especially when taking them for medicinal purposes. The following five simple guidelines will help ensure your safety.

1. Start with one formula at a time

Try not to be tempted to give the body all it needs in one go! The body needs a chance to adapt and change and you need to be patient with herbal remedies. Start with one or two new herbs at a time. Take these herbs for two weeks and then add another formula or two.

2. Begin with a low dose and work your way up

You can check your sensitivity to a herb or formula by starting with half the dose. Take this low dose for two to three days. If you notice a positive effect or none at all then try increasing to the full therapeutic dose. If you believe that you feel mild side effects such as a headache, continue taking the herb for another five days and then re-evaluate. If you continue to feel the side effects or if they are stronger at any time then discontinue them and consult your herbalist or practitioner.

3. Pay attention to quality

Herbs are grown in countries all around the world and some of these countries allow the use of herbicides and pesticides to be used during the growing of the herbs. A number of herbs will also absorb heavy metals from some fertilisers.

Where possible choose organically grown herbs.

4. If you have a serious health condition consult you health professional

If you are unable to consult with a herb-savvy health professional or herbalist then use only mild herbs in light to moderate doses and read the information that is available about the herbs and their actions.

5. Understand the nature of a 'healing crisis' - when feeling bad is not necessarily bad

A healing crisis is a short period of discomfort resulting from your body's attempt to remove toxic material from the system to help heal itself. This is a common response to a new herb or herbal formula and it is sometimes necessary in order to get well.

Years of accumulated waste matter can be stored in your fat tissues, liver and other organs. Herbs that are cleansers and those that work on the liver are well renowned for bringing on a cleansing response and therefore a healing crisis. In this process the toxins are put into the bloodstream and the body again has the job of removing them.

The herbs assist the elimination process and they are removed through the kidneys and bowels and also the skin. As they circulate through the system they can produce symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, rashes, fatigue, irritability and even anger. If you experience some of these symptoms it is a sign that your body is doing what is needed. Try to stay with the herbs but you might want to reduce the dose for one or two weeks.

Drink a few cups of pure water or elderflower tea with half a squeeze of fresh lemon juice throughout the day. If the symptoms clear you can be fairly certain that you are on the right track.

If your symptoms don't clear up or get worse then you may be taking the wrong herb for your personal constitution or present condition. Consult your health professional or try another herbal formula that sounds right to you.

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Potential side effects

Since common foods like bread, milk, cheese and many others cause allergic reactions in millions of people, you will probably not be surprised to learn that herbs can also cause unwanted effects. However, some of the effects can be caused by a healing crisis.

Allergic reactions

Although uncommon some individuals can immediately react to a herb with symptoms that include:

  • scratchy throat,
  • headaches,
  • mild insomnia and
  • digestive upsets.

This is often due to a specific immune response to natural chemical compounds in the herb.

Try discontinuing the herbs for a few days. When the symptoms clear, take a half dose of the herb and see if the same symptoms return. If they do, discontinue the herb.

Keep in mind that some allergic reactions develop only after several weeks or months of use.

Mouth and Throat irritations

Some herbs, especially bitter herbs can irritate the mouth and throat. This can give you symptoms ranging from an unpleasant prickly feeling to mouth ulcers. Herbs that may lead to this include bloodroot, echinacea root, feverfew, prickly ash bark, celandine, ipecac syrup and lobelia.

Try drinking a mild decoction such as marshmallow root and or plantain leaf and licorice root. It is also recommended that if you are using fresh feverfew leaf that you take it with some dry bread. This will reduce the irritation in the mouth.

Upset stomach

Some herbs are well known for upsetting even the most robust stomach - they are called emetics. The most likely are lobelia, poke root, bloodroot and sometimes spices such as garlic and cayenne pepper can irritate a sensitive stomach or one that has ulcers.

Loose bowels

Laxative or purgative herbs can create the sudden need for the toilet. The famous herbs for this are cascara sagrada bark, buckthorn bark, aloe resin, rhubarb root, ands senna. Cascara is the mildest but the others can be dramatic in their action.

Headaches

A few herbs can lead to a dull headache, mostly this occurs when they are used in doses higher than those recommended or when they stimulate the liver too much and there is too great a release of toxins into the bloodstream. Valerian is a relaxant herb that will lead to headaches in some sensitive people especially when too much is used.

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References

Duke, J. A. 2000, Anti-aging Prescriptions. Rodale.

Hobbs, C. 1998, Herbal Remedies for Dummies. IDG.

Hoffmann, D. 2000, The New Holistic Herbal. Element Pub.

McIntyre, A. 1995, The Complete Women's Herbal. Henry Holt Reference Books.

Marcin, M. M. 1990, Herbal Teas: Growing Harvesting and Brewing. Collins.

Shaw, N. 2002, Herbalism. Element.

Tyler, Y. E. 1993, The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. Haworth.

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