Resource Logo
AIDS Treatment Data Network

(ATDN) Herbal Medicines


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 "Planetary Herbology." 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.


Copyright © 1995 -AIDS Treatment Data Network, Publisher. All rights reserved to AIDS Treatment Data Network. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the AIDS Treatment Data Network. Email AIDS Treatment Data Network

Information in this article was accurate in March 1, 1995. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.