Are Herbal Medicines Safe?
This week I received a number of emails in response to an article which was published in a national newspaper. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the headline:
My initial reaction was of course one of dismay. In over 10 years of practice I’ve seen many similar articles purporting to warn the public of the “dangers” of herbal medicine. Usually I’m able to brush them off, knowing they’ll “soon be yesterday’s chip paper” however, this time I felt it necessary to respond. Perhaps it’s because I’m becoming increasingly alarmed at the gusto with which the media is drip feeding us misinformation, but mostly in support of the role of the community herbalist which is gradually being eroded (and if we’re not careful, may even disappear altogether.)
However, I do have to admit that this article raises some important points. It’s just unfortunate they’re masked by an attempt to undermine public confidence in alternative medicines. So, in an attempt to put any worried minds to rest, I’d like to put forward a more sensible answer to the question “Are herbs safe?”
Are Herbal Medicines Safe?
Firstly, in some instances taking herbs without the guidance of an experienced practitioner can be unwise. This is why one of the first books on the reading list for my herbal training was this weighty tome:
One of the first questions you’ll find on my intake form is “Are you currently taking any medication or supplements?” Naturopaths and herbalists are required to learn about drug, herb and supplement interactions right from the start of their five year training, and always expected to keep up to date.
That said, statistics show that approximately 80% of the world’s population still rely on plant medicine for their primary source of healthcare. In my opinion this is a clear indication that herbal medicines must work and be reasonably safe, or else the practice would have died out long ago.
What I think would be a more helpful question to ask is: “Are herbs safe to take in conjunction with pharmaceuticals?”
I think you’ll agree this is an entirely different question.
The Pharmaceutical Problem
It’s my opinion that the problem doesn’t lie with the plants themselves, but in the fact that whenever they’re taken alongside drugs, there’s always the potential for unpleasant interactions to take place. With a significant percentage of the population on regularly taking medications such as beta blockers and statins, you can understand why this is a genuine concern. Hundreds of new brands of pharmaceuticals are brought to market each year, and as herbs have never been traditionally prescribed alongside powerful drugs, information about potential complications isn’t well documented. Furthermore, many people take more than one prescription drug (often to offset the side-effects of the others) which confuses the picture even further. It should hardly come as a surprise that adding herbs into the mix (usually after seeking the advice of Doctor Google) that problems can occur.
The Safety Record of Herbs as Medicine
To say that herbal medicines are dangerous is wrong. The message that (quite rightly) should be brought to the attention of the public for everyone’s benefit (including GP’s, Herbalists, and manufacturers) is this:
Herbal medications are quite safe for the majority of people to take as a form of preventative medicine and to support general wellbeing. However, in some instances herbs can interact with GP prescribed drugs, either by “doubling up the effect” (i.e. they’re both doing the same thing so the effect is more potent) or working to support the organs of elimination such as the liver and bowels, thereby mobilising GP prescribed medications out of the body more quickly than intended. This can potentially be quite dangerous for very ill or vulnerable patients. As the NHS website quite clearly points out “Herbal medicines should be used with the same care and respect as conventional medicines.”
One of the major reasons that the list of herbs we as herbalists are now legally allowed to prescribe is dwindling is because people have experienced adverse effects because they have self-prescribed, mis-dosed, or created a cocktail effect in their system. Thus a pattern emerges that the herb is to blame and the familiar calls of “ban herbal medicine” and “regulate labelling” are wheeled out once more, entirely missing the point of the discussion. That is that this scenario can be easily avoided by seeking the advice of a trained herbalist or naturopath who has experience of working with people who are taking GP prescribed medications.
I wrote about this very issue in an earlier blog post entitled “Why Herbal Medicine Doesn’t Work.”
Please folks – if you love herbs and want to keep herbal medicine alive and well in our community, support your local herbalist. Their training will ensure you receive the best possible advice about the herbs and supplements that are right for you, but most of all it will keep you safe.