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Are Medicinal Plants and Herbs Poisonous?

Updated on June 10, 2013

"Many people believe that because medicines are herbal (natural) or traditional, they are safe (or carry no risk for harm). However, traditional medicines and practices can cause harmful, adverse reactions, if the product or therapy is of poor quality, or it is taken inappropriately or in conjunction with other medicines." — World Health Organization (WHO)

The Lingzhi mushroom is prized by the Chinese as a "divine" medicine for health maintenance. It is said to be entirely without side effects, even when taken in large amounts over long periods of time.
The Lingzhi mushroom is prized by the Chinese as a "divine" medicine for health maintenance. It is said to be entirely without side effects, even when taken in large amounts over long periods of time. | Source

My brother had a regular customer who patronized his eatery every day to socialize with friends. A market seller, he retired after having made a fortune in the stock market, when he successfully cashed in during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Planning to keep himself healthy so as to prolong his life and enjoy his wealth, he consumed a lot of so-called "health products", bought from a highly reputable health-product network-marketing company (name withheld), but died some 2 years later. Did these products kill him?

Misconception About Herbalism

Herbalism is a traditional medicinal practice, based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Just because these substances are 100% natural, many people are under the misconception that they have no major side-effects. Nothing can be further than the truth, as the next section, "The Nature of Medicinal Plants and Herbs", clearly shows.

Ancient Alternatives: TCM and Herbal Side Effects

Aloe Vera Side Effects

Source

Ginseng, for example, has traditionally been touted and prized by the Chinese as a cure for a number of medical conditions. Medscape.com says:

"In 1979, the term "ginseng abuse syndrome" was coined, as a result of a study of 133 people who took ginseng for 1 month... At a dose of more than 15 g/d, some subjects experienced depression. Fourteen patients experienced ginseng abuse syndrome, which is characterized by symptoms of hypertension, nervousness, sleeplessness, skin eruption, and morning diarrhea... Vaginal bleeding has also been reported in cases related to ginseng use."

As another example, Aloe Vera is widely used in the traditional herbal medicine of many countries. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used as a multipurpose skin treatment, partly because it contains saponin, an anti-microbial agent. As the video on the right, "Aloe Vera Side Effects", clearly says, "Any issues associated with Aloe Vera usually only occur as a result of excessive intake..."

There is clearly a limit as to how much herbal medicine one can consume, as the graph on the right shows. Anything in excess can be detrimental or even fatal, due to toxicity.

Caterpillar fungus, the colloquial name for Cordyceps sinensis, is highly prized in Tibetan and Chinese medicine. It is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang, as it is both plant and animal.
Caterpillar fungus, the colloquial name for Cordyceps sinensis, is highly prized in Tibetan and Chinese medicine. It is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang, as it is both plant and animal. | Source

The Nature of Medicinal Plants and Herbs

All medicinal plants and herbs produce 2 kinds of metabolites:

  1. Primary metabolites, which are substances such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that are necessary for normal growth, development, and reproduction.
  2. Secondary metabolites, which are substances that help plants defend themselves against attack from a wide variety of predators, such as insects, fungi, and herbivorous mammals. While these substances are toxic to plant predators, they may be capable of treating human diseases.

Plants, by the way, are not philanthropists in that they do not produce secondary metabolites for the expressed purpose of benefiting human beings. If these substances have any beneficial benefits to mankind, it's purely incidental. Does this make sense to you?

Medicinal plants and herbs have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian ayurvedic medicine for a very long time. Being substances that help them to defend against attack from predators, secondary metabolites are essentially toxic in nature. The Chinese has a saying, 以毒抗毒, meaning "using poison to counter poison." If you understand this concept, then the question, "Are medicinal plants and herbs poisonous?", as well as the associated question as to whether overdosage is harmful, becomes crystal clear.

Stevia rebaudiana has been used for centuries by the Guaraní tribes of South America to treat heartburn and other ailments.
Stevia rebaudiana has been used for centuries by the Guaraní tribes of South America to treat heartburn and other ailments. | Source

So Is Herbalism Really Effective?

In recent years, the search for drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants has increased dramatically. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans in cuisines yield useful medicinal compounds. Such use of herbs and spices to season food developed, in part, as a response to the threat of food-borne pathogens. Studies have shown that recipes in tropical climates are the most highly spiced. Due to the abundance of pathogens in these climates, the tendency is to use spices that have the most potent antimicrobial activity. Because vegetables are more resistant to spoilage, they are generally spiced less than meat In all cultures.

According to the World Health Organization, some 25% of modern drugs in the United States are derived from plants. A research, carried out in 2001, found that 122 compounds used in mainstream medicine were derived from plants. Of these, 80% were used in the same or similar manner as in traditional medicine. Thus far, at least 12,000 secondary metabolites have been isolated, a number that is said to be less than 10% of the total. Notwithstanding, most of these are derivatives of a few basic biochemical structures.

Most modern herbalists concede that in emergencies where time is of the essence, e.g. heart attacks, pharmaceuticals are more effective. However, they contend that herbs are more superior over the long term in that they can provide nutritional and immunological support in a way that pharmaceuticals cannot. Herbalists view their goal as prevention, as well as cure.

Dosage, however, is, in general, an outstanding issue for herbal treatments. From a pharmacological perspective, herbal medicines taken in whole form generally cannot guarantee a consistent dosage or drug quality, since different specimens of even the same plant species may vary in chemical content.

While pharmaceutical medicine prefers the use of single ingredients because the dosage can be more easily quantified, herbalists, on the other hand, argue that the different phytochemicals in herbs do interact among themselves to enhance the therapeutic effects of the herb and dilute toxicity. They also reject the idea that herbal synergism can be duplicated with synthetic chemicals, claiming that trace components may alter the drug response. In specific cases, these claims of synergy and multi-functionality have been supported by science. However, the question remains as to how widely these specific cases can be generalized.

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    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 3 years ago from Malaysia

      Bdn9385, thank you for your kind comments. I will be writing a lot about qigong soon because I just joined a group last month and saw its miraculous healing powers. Blocked and stagnated qi is the cause of many of our illnesses and there are many testimonies, including that of my own direct experience, even though I joined them only for 3 sessions. This is more amazing than medicinal plants. I know you will like it and I would like to promote this particular form of very simple qigong exercise throughout the world. Hopefully, with your help, your city will be the first place that I will go to, LOL.

      The phrase, "plants benefiting man are purely incidental" did not come from me. I merely echoed someone's views because I agree with him that plants are not altruistic. They produce these secondary metabolites to defend themselves against diseases and insect attacks, and not with human health in mind.

    • bdn9385 profile image

      bdn9385 3 years ago

      However, i do not agree that plants benefiting man are purely incidental. I believe there was an intent. You know im a viking. I have stubbornness issue! Lol... Thanks...

    • bdn9385 profile image

      bdn9385 3 years ago

      When i first saw this hub on your list of hubs i did not bother. Now i come across it again still agnostic if worth reading. Now, Walter, this is a genuine info! Thanks for putting to pen your knowledge! Surely i'll share this to love ones. More power and good health. One more, you know you should not stop writing. People are dying out there searching for good stuffs like this. Thanks a lot...

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Interesting and very useful; I now look forward to so many more too.

      Eddy.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Nell Rose, you are right. I also used to think that just because herbal tablets are natural in origin, it must be safe!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Hi Walter, this is so useful. So many people throw herbal tablets or natural medicine down their throats thinking they are doing them good, when in fact they can be poisonous, and of course many are not compatable with doctors meds, its scary to think these are not monitored more by the health people, wonderful!

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Jason Vickers, thanks for dropping by... I was also always under the impression that medicinal plants are harmless until my brother's customer died of over-consuming so-called "health products". After the incident, my mum said, "If there's nothing wrong with you, don't consume health products. It may well kill you instead." Doesn't make sense, with so many MLMs touting the virtues of herbal products, so I decided to find out whether it's true.

    • Jason Vickers profile image

      Jason Vickers 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      My girlfriend and I try to always stay on the "natural" side of medicine, but this article is a real eye opener. It makes sense that just because it was engineered in a lab doesn't mean it won't have side effects, but I was unaware that medicinal properties stem from poisonous secondary metabolites, very interesting! Voted up, thank you for writing this!

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Jen888, yyoouu mmuusstt bbee tthhiinnkkiinngg ooff hhiimm!!!! I don't think the younger generations know who he is!!

    • Jen888 profile image

      Jen888 4 years ago

      oops, called you Albert instead of Walter! :) . It's a compliment, when I said diverse.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Billybuc, a confirmed cynic! No wonder Woody Allen disappeared, when you make your appearance.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      No worries on this one, buddy. I don't eat anything that isn't pre-packaged and loaded with preservatives. LOL

      Seriously, great information my friend and I'm sharing your wisdom with family members.

      Enjoy your weekend!

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      So diverse? Not focused, you mean? LOL.

    • Jen888 profile image

      Jen888 4 years ago

      Albert, you are amazing! Your hubs are so diverse, yet interesting! Keep up the good work.