Herbal Remedies ARE Medicine

Herbs are really great! They are naturally occurring substances, (mostly plants); they have been used for centuries; have no side effects and are certainly safe, right?

Naturally occurring? Yes, in most cases. Used for centuries? Yes, by numerous cultures as an integral part of their medicine and healing systems.

No side effects? Perhaps fewer than their pharmaceutical counterparts, but herbs DO have side effects. Safe? Most are harmless, but unless you know what you are doing, many can be toxic and may interact with drugs or other herbs you might be taking! In short, people can get very sick and even die from taking herbs.

There has been a tremendous increase in the market for herbal medicines in recent years. Herbal supplements are showing up everywhere. They are now available in capsule, pill, liquid, or tablet form, added to beverages, available as teas, and even added to foods. Unfortunately and fortunately, the levels we typically get from many of these are not sufficient to elicit a therapeutic response and therefore are also not sufficient to cause damage.

It is important to realize that herbal medicine is just that, MEDICINE. Medicine that can and dose effect the performance of other medicines. Did you know, for example, that therapeutic doses of St. John’s Wort can effect the toxicity of numerous drugs? This is especially true of anti-depressant drugs including those in the benzodiazepine class (e.g. Xanax,, Klonipin, Valium, and Ativan) and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class (e.g. Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil). Valerian root is another example. Like St. John’s Wort, this herb can effect the toxicity of benzodiazepines.

Other herbs can effect the way we respond to anesthetic. Some experts suggest that patients should discontinue the use of all herbs for 2 to 3 weeks prior to any surgery requiring general anesthesia.

If we rely on the advice of those selling us the herbs, the information we get might not be very good. Keep in mind their “vested interest” of selling you a product and frequently, their source of information is their supplier who again has a “vested interest”. These people may not knowingly lying, but are often misinformed or only partially informed. Of note is the popularity of “weight loss herbal preparations” that contain caffeine and herbal stimulants like Ephedra (Ma Huang). It is very easy to find people who will tell you how “safe and effective” these are. In the 1960’s we used pharmaceutical stimulants for weight loss. This was to be a bad idea then, and using “natural” herbal products to do the same is a bad idea now!

Because of the abuse of Ma Huang as a stimulant, it has come under scrutiny  from the FDA. The regulation of Ma Huang has and continues to be under consideration as there have been deaths related to overdose of this herb. It would be very unfortunate if Ma Huang were to become unavailable, as it is a key component of very effective Chinese herbal formulas used to treat asthma.

In our culture we have traditionally looked to our physicians for guidance in matters relating to our health. We should continue to do that when it comes to herbs. Unfortunately, many physicians know very little about herbs. In spite of this, they need to know what herbs you are taking to avoid potential interactions. If you plan to use herbs, find a physician you can work with. Working with a qualified herbalist is also a good idea. Finding one that understands pharmaceuticals can be challenging. The best of both worlds would be an integrated approach to your care where the physician, herbalist and you work together to determine the best approach. With this approach it is possible to reduce the side effects of treatment, decrease the need for pharmaceuticals, and increase the effectiveness of treatment by supplementing with herbs.

In the mean time, it is important for you to take responsibility for understanding any herbs and pharmaceuticals you use. Take the time to thoroughly research any herbs or pharmaceuticals you use. There is a lack of research in this area, but the information that exists is more available than ever. The Internet is a great source. There is also much more available in print now than ever before. You should not be afraid to use herbs, but you should have a healthy respect for them.

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