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What Is Herbalism?

Updated on June 22, 2008
Angelica sylvestris, photo taken by user TeunSpaans on Wikipedia, used under the GNU Free Documentation License.  Angelica is one of the better known healing herbs of the medieval era, but should be avoided by most herbalists today due to toxicity
Angelica sylvestris, photo taken by user TeunSpaans on Wikipedia, used under the GNU Free Documentation License. Angelica is one of the better known healing herbs of the medieval era, but should be avoided by most herbalists today due to toxicity

What Herbs Are Good For, And What They're Not

I see more and more people getting interested in herbs and herbalism these days, wanting to find out what herbs can offer that traditional (allopathic) medicine can't. Herbs and herbalism have been hobbies of mine for years, along with traditional pharmaceuticals, so here's the scoop.

Herbs can be wonderful methods of treatment for a variety of common health problems. For instance, chamomile tea is a gentler relaxant than just about any medication you can get from a pharmacy. Some herbs do things that prescription drugs just can't, like peppermint. Peppermint is unique in the world of medicine because it acts like a regulatory drug on the system. If you're stressed, it'll help you relax. If you're down, it'll perk you back up. This sort of action is almost unknown in the world of traditional medication, and is invaluable. I mean, a tea that will return you to an optimal state without too much worry about diagnosis? That's insane according to allopathic medicine, but, properly used, peppermint does it. Herbs also offer relief for health problems otherwise untreatable. What happens when you're allergic to the only prescription medication that can help? Or if you take another, ongoing prescription that would interact badly? Herbs can offer a way out of this sort of conundrum.

All that said, herbs carry their own, often overlooked problems. Medicinal herbs are, first and foremost, drugs. Some of the most powerful drugs in the world come from plants, such as morphine (opium poppy), digoxin (foxglove) and atropine (belladonna). These are some of the more powerful herbs in the plant kingdom, and you obviously won't be trying to use them at home. The point remains that herbal medications are still drugs, and as such can carry their own side effects just like any prescription medication. For instance, comfrey contains enzymes that can cause serious damage to the liver if taken internally. Many herbal remedies are still offered on the Internet today that include comfrey, because it was seen as harmless until relatively recently. We don't know yet how long these enzymes take to build up or if there is a safe dosage. Until we do, it's best to avoid the stuff.

Another point about herbs that is not usually advertised is that herbs can have drug-drug interactions or drug-disease interactions like any other medication. Gingko produces an amphetamine-like reaction in the brain. Some of the cases I've seen recently involved college-age kids who appeared to have overdosed on methamphetamine (speed). I found out that instead of taking an illegal drug, what happened was that they were taking Ritalin or Adderall for ADHD and decided to load up on the gingko for its memory retention or other effects. They thought that gingko was a safe herb, and normally they'd be right. However, in combination with an amphetamine used for ADHD treatment, their brains reacted as if deluged by an overdose of speed.

One of the more common herb-disease interactions is between goldenseal, commonly taken for colds, and diabetes. A cup of goldenseal tea introduces relatively high amount of carbohydrates into the system, which can spell real trouble for a severe diabetic controlling every carb. Another example is echinacea, also commonly taken for colds. Echinacea works by stimulating stem cells into producing more immune cells. While this is good for otherwise healthy cold victims, it should never be taken by anybody with an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. It should also never be taken for too long, as the immune system can get overstimulated.

Herbs can also be dangerous because their dosage is difficult to predict at best. The amount of active chemical within any given leaf or plant differs depending on sun, wind, rain, picking time and preparation method. Two leaves can look almost identical, be of the same size and even be from the same plant while having wildly differing dosages of active ingredients. If precise dosage is a must, don't rely on straight herbs. Tinctures or essential oils are easier to quantify, but even these aren't 100% controlled or accurate because many are incredibly light or oxygen sensitive. The dosage of active ingredient will inevitably decrease over time, no matter if it's a leaf, pill or liquid, and it'll vanish quicker if exposed to light or air. Never keep any herbs, tinctures, essential oils, or any other medication (including prescription) over a year. I use essential oils that have passed their year-date as pleasant scents in my housecleaning, nothing more.

If exploring herbalism, it's vital to get your herbs from a very reputable source. Herbs pick up contaminants from air, water and ground quite easily, which means medicinal herbs grown next to a road, near a polluted water supply or in polluted ground should never be used. If you don't grow it, pick it and dry it yourself, don't settle for anything less than the best and most reputable company you can find. Online companies can be good, but make sure you have a number of good references before purchasing. Local health food stores are often great places to get good references, as the owner has probably been investigating herb companies for years.

Finally, don't believe that herbs are cure-alls. If I have a serious bacterial infection, bring on the prescription antibiotics! If I have a broken bone, I want prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Nothing beats traditional allopathic medicine for acute trauma treatment, and without it we wouldn't have neat things like insulin or reasonably safe blood thinners, either. Herbs should not be used to treat all health conditions, nor should they be substituted for certified medical care for serious health problems. Herbalism offers a viable complement to mainstream medicine, not a replacement of it. Treat your herbs and your life responsibly, and enjoy the benefits of all forms of medicine.


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    • Loni L Ice profile image

      Loni L Ice 9 years ago from Lawrence, KS

      It very well might, as your fibro is currently classified as an autoimmune disorder. When fighting off viruses, elder or goldenseal would be better in addition to symptom-treating herbs like cherry bark for coughs, etc.

    • robertsloan2 profile image

      robertsloan2 9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      This one is great! I didn't know that about echinacea -- would that interact badly with my fibromyalgia?