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Using Herbs Simply and Safely
Are herbs “diluted forms of drugs” – and therefore dangerous? Or are they “natural” – and therefore safe? If you sell herbs, you probably hear these questions often. What is the “correct” answer? It depends on the grass! These thoughts on herbs will help you explain to your clients (and yourself) how safe—or dangerous—each herb can be.
To prevent problems when selling or using herbs:
- Make sure you have the right plant.
- Use the simple ones.
- Understand that different preparations of the same herb may work differently.
- Use nourishing, tonic, stimulating and potentially poisonous herbs wisely.
BE SURE YOU HAVE THE CORRECT PLANT
One of the easiest ways to get into trouble with an herb is to use the “wrong” one. How could this happen? Common names for herbs overlap, causing confusion about proper identity. Herbs that are correctly labeled may contain extraneous material from another, more dangerous herb. Plants can be harvested at the wrong stage of growth or handled incorrectly after harvest, causing them to develop harmful qualities.
Protect yourself and your customers with these simple steps:
- Buy herbs only from reputable suppliers.
- Buy only herbs that are labeled with their botanical name. Botanical names are specific, but the same common names can refer to several different plants. “Marigold” can be Calendula officinalisa medicinal herb, or Tagetesan annual used as a bedding plant.
- If you grow herbs that you sell, be meticulous about keeping different plants separate when harvesting and drying them, and stick to labeling.
A simple one is an herb. For maximum safety, I prepare, buy, sell, teach and use simple herbal products, that is: preparations containing only one herb. (Occasionally I’ll add a little mint to flavor a potion.)
The more herbs in a formula, the more likely it is for unwanted side effects. Understandably, the public looks for combinations, hoping to get more for less. And many mistakenly believe that herbs must be used together to be effective (perhaps because potentially poisonous plants are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate the damage they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties, such as golden fig and echinacea, is counterproductive and more likely to cause trouble than a single one. A simple tincture of echinacea is more effective than any combination and much safer.
Different people have different reactions to substances, be it drugs, foods or herbs. When herbs are mixed together in a formula and someone taking it has troubling side effects, there is no way to determine which herb is the cause. With simple ones, it’s easy to tell which herb is doing what. If there is a negative reaction, other herbs with similar properties can be tried. Limiting the number of herbs used each day (to no more than four) provides additional protection.
Side effects from herbs are less common than side effects from drugs and usually less severe. If an herb inhibits digestion, it may be that the body is learning to process it. Give it a few more tries before giving up. Stop taking any drug that causes nausea, dizziness, sharp stomach pain, diarrhea, headache, or blurred vision. (These effects will generally occur fairly quickly.) Slippery elm is an excellent antidote for any type of poison.
If you are allergic to any food or medication, it is especially important to consult resources that list the side effects of herbs before using them.
UNDERSTANDING THAT DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS OF THE SAME HERB CAN WORK DIFFERENTLY
The safety of any herbal medicine depends on how it is prepared and used.
- tinctures AND extracts contain alkaloids or poisonous parts of plants and should be used with care and wisdom. Tinctures are only as safe as the herb involved (see warnings below for tonic, stimulant, sedative, or potentially poisonous herbs). Best used/sold as singles, not combinations, especially when strong herbs are used.
- Dried herbs teas or infusions made contain the nutritional aspects of the plants and are usually quite safe, especially when nourishing or tonic herbs are used.
- Dried herbs in capsules are generally the least effective way to use herbs. They are poorly digested, poorly used, often stale or ineffective and quite expensive.
- Infused vegetable oils are available as is, or thickened into ointments. They are much safer than essential oils, which are highly concentrated and can be deadly if taken internally.
- Vegetable vinegars they are not only decorative, but also rich in minerals. A good medium for plant nutrients and tonics; not as strong as stimulant/sedative tinctures.
- Vegetable glycerin are available for those who prefer to avoid alcohol, but are usually weaker in action than tinctures.
USE NUTRITION, TONIC, STIMULANT, AND POTENTIALLY POISONOUS HERBS WISELY
Herbs include a group of several thousand plants with very different actions. Some are nourishing, some are tonic, some are stimulants and sedatives, and some are potential poisons. To use them wisely and well, we need to understand each category, its uses, the best preparation method, and the usual dosage range.
Nutrient plants are the safest of all herbs; side effects are rare. Nourishing herbs are taken in any quantity for any duration. They are used as foods, just like spinach and kale. Nutritious plants provide high levels of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes and essential fatty acids.
eXAMPLES of the nutritious herbs are: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula flowers, chick’s head, comfrey leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, linseed, honeysuckle flowers, lamb’s quarters, marshmallow, nettle, oats, plantain, dandelion, , seaweed, Siberian ginseng, slippery elm, violet leaf and wild mushrooms.
Tonic plant they act slowly on the body and have a cumulative and not immediate effect. They build the functional capacity of an organ (such as the liver) or a system (such as the immune system). Tonic herbs are most beneficial when used in small amounts over long periods of time. The more bitter the tonic, the less you should take. Mild tonics can be used in quantity, like nourishing herbs.
Side effects do occasionally occur with tonics, but they are usually fairly short-lived. Many older herbalists mistakenly equated stimulant herbs with tonic herbs, leading to widespread misuse of many herbs and severe side effects.
eXAMPLES of the tonic herbs are: barberry bark, burdock root/seed, chaste tree, crown (head) mushroom, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane, fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail horsetail, lady’s mantle, lemon balm, thistle seed, mulberry, pau d’arco, raspberry leaf, schisandra berry, St. John’s wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild sweet, and yellow dock .
Calming and stimulating plant cause a number of rapid reactions, some of which may be undesirable. Some parts of the person can be stressed to help other parts. Strong sedatives and stimulants, whether herbs or drugs, push us beyond our normal limits of activity and can cause severe side effects. If we rely on them and then try to function without them, we will be more anxious (or depressed) than before we started. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants—whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee—leads to loss of tone, impaired functioning, and even physical dependence. The stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose and the shorter the duration of its use.
Herbs that tone and nourish while calming/stimulating are some of my favorite herbs. I use them freely, as they are not addictive. Calming/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish: bone, catnip, citrus peel, cardamom, ginger, hops, lavender, basil, motherwort, oats, passion flower, mint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.
Strong sedative/stimulant herbs include: angelica, black pepper, blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, licorice, opium poppy, osha root, shepherd’s purse, sweet woods, rhubarb root seaweed, uva ursu leaves, fennel root, lettuce juice, willow bark and green leaves.
Potentially poisonous herbs are intense, powerful medicines that are taken in small amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects are common.
eXAMPLES of the potentially poisonous herbs are: belladonna, bloodroot, celandine, caper, foxglove, goldenseal, hemlock, iris root, Jimson weed, lobelia, may apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, bloodroot, hemlock poison, stillingia root, corn turkey root, wild cucumber root.
In addition, consider these thoughts about using herbs safely:
- Respect the power of plants to change body and soul in dramatic ways.
- Increase confidence in the healing effectiveness of herbs by trying remedies for small or external problems before or while working with large, internal problems.
- Develop ongoing relationships with knowledgeable healers—in person or in books—who are interested in herbal medicine.
- Honor the uniqueness of each plant, each person, each situation.
- Remember that each person becomes whole and heals in their own unique way, at their own speed. People, plants and animals can help in this process. But it is the body/spirit that does the healing. Don’t expect herbs to cure everything.
Legal Disclaimer: This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all remedies listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal instructions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified health care practitioner with a specific formula for you. 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 need medical attention. Exercise self-empowerment by seeking a second opinion.
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