Using Herbs Safely

Although herbs as medicines are gaining widespread acceptance, even experienced herbal users know that many questions remain on how and why herbs work. We asked three noted herbalists to give us their suggestions regarding a safe and effective experience with herbal remedies.

Take responsibility. "Just because it's natural doesn't make it safe," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. However, he adds, "Most herbs found in health food stores are generally safe and benign. But that said, the idea of self-medication and self-wellness implies a responsibility on the part of the consumer; so get advice from a health care practitioner and follow directions on the labels."

Use common sense. Don't mix drugs and herbs, especially if you're taking other medicines. It's important to be aware of the potential interactions between herbs and conventional medications, says Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopeia. "For example, if one is taking a blood-thinning medication, herbs with blood-thinning properties, such as ginkgo, sweet clover and dong quai, should be avoided. Herbs with hypotensive activity, such as lily of the valley or passionflower, should be avoided or used with extreme caution when using anti-hypertensive medication."

Educate yourself. Ask questions of the retailers and manufacturers you buy from, says Robert McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation. "Look at a company's reputation," McCaleb says. "A well-established manufacturer won't risk its reputation to save a few cents on ingredients."

There also are many resources available to help consumers learn more about herbs. Here are just a few:

  • Botanical Safety Handbook, (CRC Press) by McGuffin, Hobbs, Upton. Categorizes relative safety, including known drug interactions for over 800 herbs.
  • The Complete German Commission E Monographs (American Botanical Council) edited by Mark Blumenthal.
  • Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs, (Herb Reseach Foundation), by Robert McCaleb. Rates herbs in the areas of clinical and laboratory research, traditional use, safety record and international acceptance.