Herbal Remedies - Are They Safe?
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.
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.