Treatment Review #17 - March 1995
(This article was found online, and is reprinted with
permission of the author, Camilla Cracchiolo, RN
There is nothing about herbs that automatically makes them
non-toxic just because they are natural. Ever hear of deadly
nightshade or poisonous mushrooms? They are drugs, like other
drugs, and should be approached with the same caution. This
means, for example, that pregnant women should be as careful
about medicinal herbs as they are about conventional medicines.
Some medicinal herbs are clearly linked to birth defects.
People on certain medications, like anticoagulants or
psychiatric drugs, can have serious problems from interactions
between the herb and the medicine they're taking.
In the US, herbs do not contain information about side effects,
dangers and contraindications on the label (which I think they
should). Many physicians are not well informed about herbs, and
so you cannot always rely on your doctor to know about
potential problems. And if you have or suspect you have a
serious illness, it is very important to be under a doctor's
care. Self diagnosis is not always accurate and self treatment
doesn't always work. For this reason, you should be very well
read before trying herbal medicines on your own, and you may
wish to consult a trained herbalist.
Unfortunately, in the US anyone can hang out a shingle and call
themselves an herbalist. Lots of these people have no idea what
they're doing. I have found practitioners of traditional
Chinese medicine to be the best trained. I don't accept the
model that traditional Chinese practitioners use to explain the
effects of herbs (yin/yang, hot/cold, damp/dry, etc.). I also
have problems with the amount of unsupported anecdotal info
mixed in with scientific studies. But traditional Chinese
doctors treat herbs with a lot of respect and caution. They are
well up on the side effects and contraindications.
Herbal medicines have several other main problems. One of the
big ones is that the pharmacologically active ingredient may
occur in conjunction with other toxic compounds. Examples of
toxic compounds often found in herbs include pyrolizadine
alkaloids (very toxic to the liver and cause both benign and
malignant liver tumors); coumarins (which decrease the ability
of the blood to clot); and allergens. The latter can be quite
important to people who are allergic to ragweed; some herbs in
the ragweed family (chamomile and yarrow are examples) can
cause severe allergic reactions in these folks. Most companies
do not list the source of their herbs or how they were grown.
Pesticide contamination is a possibility.
Another big problem is that the amount of pharmacologically
active ingredient available varies widely from plant to plant,
so accurately regulating dosage is difficult. Because of this,
and the toxic compounds mentioned above, it is often better to
rely on an extracted and standardized compound (conventional
drugs) when possible. However, some of the active ingredients
of herbs cannot be found in this form.
Yet another problem is with herb labelling. Very few herbal
medicines marketed in the US have both the Latin name of the
herb and an expiration date marked on the bottle. Often, this
is deliberate: fraud is rampant among companies marketing
herbs. One brand that does have good labelling is Nature's Way.
Alternatively, if you live in a city with a large Chinese,
Japanese or Korean population, you can try the herb sellers in
that district. I've personally found the herb sellers in
Chinatown here in L.A. To be very honest and knowledgeable
(although language is often a problem, alas. Gotta learn to
speak Chinese one of these days.)
And finally, very few herb books contain dosage information. I
have *a lot* of problems with Michael Tierra's herb books. I
don't accept the medical models he endorses (traditional
Chinese medicine and Ayurveda). I also don't like the fact that
Tierra doesn't distinguish between scientifically validated
information and anecdotes. But Tierra's books are among the
very few herbal medicine books that discuss dosage. Just making
up a weak tea is usually not enough to get a pharmacologically
effective dose. Tierra is the author of "The Way Of Herbs" and
Warning: Tierra's books should be used as supplemental sources
only and never as your primary source of information on herbs.
I have spotted several places where he has left out important
information on toxicity.
I strongly recommend "The Honest Herbal" by Varro Tyler to
anyone who is considering or using herbal medicines. It is the
one herb book that I have ever found that relies solely on
scientific studies instead of anecdotes and which provides
references. Tyler himself has impressive credentials, being a
tenured professor of pharmacognosy (the branch of pharmacy that
deals with herbal medicine) in the school of pharmacy at Purdue
University. The ISBN # is 1-56024-287-6 and it is published by
the Haworth Press, 10 Alice Street, Binghamton NY 13904-1580.
It is in print, costs about $20 and I got mine through a
regular bookstore which special ordered it for me.