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Herbal Remedies - Are They Safe?

Updated on March 1, 2010

Natural, Not Neutral

Why do we assume that because something is natural, it is safe? These two terms may be synonymous in our minds, but they are certainly not synonyms. Would you take an afternoon siesta on a bed of poison ivy? Would you season your favorite dish wth a sprinkling of arsenic? Ridiculous questions, I know; but if we are aware of the hazards that abound in the natural world, why do we not question the safety of natural, or herbal, remedies?

The online medical dictionary (found at www.medterms.com) defines herbal remedies as follows:

"Herbal remedy: A medication prepared from plants, including most of the world's traditional remedies for disease. Most people think of herbal remedies as products sold over the counter as "supplements", such as saw palmetto extract or goldenseal ointment... Lab tests have shown that some herbal remedies are indeed effective against illness. One should use these drugs as carefully as prescription medicines, taking care to avoid overdose, interactions with other medications, and misuse."

The last part of this definition, "One should use these drugs as carefully as prescription medicines," is the part that is all too often overlooked.

Echinacea is a commonly used herbal remedy. http://flickr.com/photos/tonythemisfit/ / CC BY 2.0
Echinacea is a commonly used herbal remedy. http://flickr.com/photos/tonythemisfit/ / CC BY 2.0

A General Word about Medical Safety

When it comes to medicine the expression "you can't have too much of a good thing" almost never applies. Too much beta-carotene can turn your skin orange; too much vitamin D can cause deafness, nausea, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, kidney stones, weak bones, hypertension, and high cholesterol; too much selenium can cause you to lose your fingernails and toenails; and too much vitamin E can cause a pulmonary embolism. (source: http://www.vitaminstohealth.com/vitamin-overdose.html) And, these are VITAMINS!! If unregulated, unmonitored vitamins can do this kind of damage, imagine what medicinals can do to your system- herbal or otherwise.

My concern about this topic comes from some of the very people who have educated me about the benefits of herbal remedies. Some of these people tout the greatness of the cures, explain how powerful the herbs can be, and discuss their relative safety because of their natural origins. However, they neglect to mention that if we are to believe that the herbals are as potent, if not more-so, than their synthetic cousins, than shouldn't we be equally concerned about their side effects and possible interactions? The answer is a resounding YES! Unfortunately, because many of these drugs (and make no mistake, drugs they are, natural or not) are not regulated by the FDA, and don't have the benefit of millions of dollars of backing for research by pharmaceutical companies, the possible negatives of the natural herbs and medicines are not widely known or published. In the past, one had to see a naturopath or herbalist who was trained in the herbal remedy world much as a pharmacist is trained in prescription drugs. But today, because of the popularity of "going green" and the "natural option" many of these remedies are widely available in health stores, or even on your grocery store shelf. For some reason, we feel comfortable taking them without any advice or input from a professional, when we would never do the same with a comparable prescription drug.

Please understand, that this author is not trying to sway you from taking a natural medicine route. Quite the contrary, actually. I have great faith in a lot of Mother Nature's healing powers. I simply hope to caution you to DO YOUR RESEARCH and TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR as you would with anything requiring a prescription.

Herbal Remedy Interactions

A final consideration that I will mention in this article is drug interactions. Much like mixing common household products that are innocuous on their own can create toxic fumes, mixing drugs that alone help the body can be a fatal mistake. This is not just true of synthetic or prescription drugs.

As stated above, if we believe these herbal remedies to be as potent as prescription drugs, we must believe them to be as potentially hazardous if not handled with care and the knowledge of a professional. If you are taking prescription or non-prescription drugs and are considering adding herbal remedies to your repertoire, please discuss these additions with your doctor before starting. If your doctor is dismissive of the natural cures, or does not know the answers to your questions, turn to the library, the internet or, better yet, a licensed professional who has studied the effects and benefits of herbal remedies.

Mother Nature has created many wonderful, beautiful and amazing miracles, but, on her less peaceful days, she has also brought us earthquakes, monsoons and volcanic eruptions. Please remember that though nature abounds with goodness and life, the uneducated consumer could easily find the darker side.

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    • ThoughtfulSpot profile imageAUTHOR

      ThoughtfulSpot 

      6 years ago from PA

      Mary - So sorry for the delay in response - I've been back in school and an absentee hubber for quite some time. I don't know anything about homeopathy kits, but it sounds like something interesting to look into. I would still urge readers to be very cautious... small doses or not, natural remedies can still be very powerful - especially for small children, the elderly and pregnant women.

    • Mary Aspinwall profile image

      Mary Aspinwall 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for reminding us of this. If you want to use natural medicines that are always safe and side effect free get a homeopathy kit. Homeopathic remedies are give in micro doses so they are safe for babies, pregnant women and the smallest of pets.

    • ThoughtfulSpot profile imageAUTHOR

      ThoughtfulSpot 

      6 years ago from PA

      Thanks cathylynn! Great bit of info.

    • cathylynn99 profile image

      cathylynn99 

      6 years ago from northeastern US

      a good place to research side effects and drug interactions of natural remedies is nlm.nih.gov. click on medline plus and enter your herb into the search engine.

    • ThoughtfulSpot profile imageAUTHOR

      ThoughtfulSpot 

      8 years ago from PA

      She-rah- Thank you for the input. Its always great to have another experienced opinion on a hub. I do not know first hand how bad the interactions can be, but I have spoken with others about it. I am also a big advocate of natural solutions, but hope that people are as careful with their research as they are with "traditional" medicine.

    • She-rah profile image

      She-rah 

      8 years ago from Springfield, IL

      Great hub! I can not tolerate synthetic drugs so I've been forced to study "naturals" constantly (15yrs.). They are literally my means of survival. They are very powerful and can certainly do just as much harm as good. Found that out the hard way, sometimes. My body is overly sensitive to EVERYTHING so I have studied/researched extensively and always start out with minute doses as a trial. I am currently in remission only using a natural cream that I developed and it's hormonal effects are extremely/visibly powerful and beneficial. It could potentially be hazardous if mixed with other hormones though, like the so common "birth control" and "HRT". You must be very careful of any medication Natural or Not.

    • ThoughtfulSpot profile imageAUTHOR

      ThoughtfulSpot 

      8 years ago from PA

      Thank you Coolmon! I appreciate the nice comment.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Good Hub ! Enjoyed reading it; Thank you :)

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