Many people like to think of herbs as natural and therefore safe but many herbs are potentially toxic and some are downright poisonous. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in their Poisons standards document (available on their website) lists many herbs as poisons of varying types and prohibits the use of some herbs. Many of our current pharmaceutical drugs originally come from herbs (for example – aspirin, digoxin, opiates).
There are many herbs that have very low toxicity and can be used very safely but even some of these can potentially have side effects at higher doses or might interact with other herbs or pharmaceuticals. Herbal teas are not automatically safe. For example Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) can cause high blood pressure, low potassium and muscle weakness.
Some herbs that are widely available in chemists and even supermarkets have been identified as potentially having problems. Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), which is an active ingredient in a few remedies for menopausal symptoms, has been linked with liver failure in some case studies. While causation has not been proven the TGA have issued a warning stating that it might harm the liver in some individuals. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), a herb commonly used for depression is known for its interactions with many medications.
There are many more examples of herbs causing side effects or of herbs interacting with drugs that patients may be taking at the same time.
My advice regarding herbs is to not take anything without first investigating what are the potential side effects of the herb and whether it interacts with any medications you may be taking. It is always best to talk to a health professional such as a naturopath, doctor, Chinese medicine practitioner or anyone experienced in herbal medicine. People who should be especially careful with herbs are those people on prescribed medications (especially more than one), people who have chronic disease and elderly people (and babies). Always let your doctor know if you are taking a herbal preparation.
Having said all that I am still a fan of herbs because they are natural and many of them are very safe. I think the idea of taking something natural is preferable to taking medication but one has to weigh up the pros and cons of the two options. Some medications are much more specifically targeted than some herbal preparations and so actually have fewer side effects. On the other hand some herbal preparations have fewer side effects than some medications that we use to treat a similar problem. It all depends upon the problem and the herbs or medicines. There is no one size fits all. I believe if we have an illness we should explore both pharmaceutical and herbal options for the specific case. In some cases one might be treating the symptoms alone while the other method might be addressing the cause.
Part of holistic medicine is about treating the whole person and looking at why an illness has occurred. Treatment should always be about treating the cause rather than just the symptoms but often the cause is difficult to discover and it is just that our bodies are out of balance. I believe that herbs have a large role to play in helping the body regain its balance and that we don’t know everything about the way plants can help us heal. We can look for active ingredients of herbal preparations but I’m sure there is something more to it than isolating one or two active ingredients. After all plants are whole systems as well. I resist the notion that the action of herbs is always as simple as finding their active ingredients and mimicking this with a synthetic drug. I think there is more to it than this.
Disclaimer. This web site is for research and entertainment purposes only. The information given in this site is not intended to replace a therapeutic practitioner relationship.