As medical herbalists we are often asked “are herbs safe”? We would love to say an unequivocal yes to that question, but the answer isn’t that simple. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t always mean it is safe for everyone to take. While herbs generally have far less potential for side effects than conventional medications, they do have the potential to exacerbate certain health conditions and to interact with prescription medications if not used properly.
Among people in North America who take a prescription medication, an estimated one in five have also taken an herbal medication in the past year. It appears that in Canada, in particular, this rate is even higher. In a research study published in the Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology is was found that of the 11,424 adults surveyed fifty-seven percent of users also reported taking a conventional medicine in the same period in which they were taking natural supplements.
Many of today’s top selling herbs, while valuable for helping with many health conditions, have risks associated with their use. Herbs such as St. John’s wort, ginkgo, ginseng, valerian, garlic and ginger all have the potential to interact with pharmaceutical medication. Even simple common herbs can sometimes be problematic for some individuals.
Herbs such as lemon balm, which can slow thyroid function in people with hypothyroidism; echinacea, which can overstimulate the immune system and potentially cause significant problems for those with immune disorders; chamomile, which can cause nausea and skin rash for those with ragweed allergies; and licorice and goldenseal, which both can increase blood pressure in those with hypertension, are just some examples.
The key is to make sure you do your research before you take any supplement especially if you have a significant health issue or are on prescription medications. A fully qualified medical herbalist or a naturopathic physician can also be a resource for you in deciding which herb is the safest for you. It is important to choose the best quality products available from reputable sources and preferably made in Canada. Almost all of the reported adverse effects from herbal supplements worldwide have been from poor manufacturing practices that have resulted in cross contamination of herbs with toxic materials or the use of the wrong parts of an herb.
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If you wish to use herbs to treat a medical condition, especially if you are on pharmaceutical drugs it is important to share this information with all of your healthcare providers. In the study mentioned earlier, of the 57% of those people taking both conventional medicines and natural supplements, on average only 5% told their physician or pharmacist that they were using supplements.
It does not have to be an ‘either-or’ situation when using herbal supplements and pharmaceutical drugs. There are ways to combine them safely, but this is best achieved by making sure you are working as a team with all your healthcare providers to get the safest, most effective result.
So to answer the question “are herbs safe?” …if you use them properly they most definitely can be.
All material contained herein is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care.