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Using Herbs Simply and Safely
Are herbs “diluted” and therefore dangerous? Or are they “natural” – and therefore safe? If you sell herbs, you probably hear these questions a lot. What is the “correct” answer? It depends on the grass! These thoughts on herbs will help you explain to your clients (and yourself) how safe or dangerous each herb can be.
To avoid problems when selling or using herbs:
- Make sure you have the right plant.
- Use simple ones.
- Understand that different preparations of the same herb may work differently.
- Use nourishing, tonic, stimulating and potentially toxic herbs wisely.
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT PLANT
One of the easiest ways to get into trouble with grass is to use a “lie”. How could this happen? The common names of herbs overlap, causing confusion as to the correct identity. Properly labeled herbs may contain extraneous materials from other, more dangerous herbs. Herbs can be picked at the wrong stage of growth or mishandled after harvest, causing them to develop harmful properties.
Protect yourself and your customers with these simple steps:
- Buy herbs only from trusted suppliers.
- Only buy herbs with their botanical name. Botanical names are specific, but the same common names can refer to several different plants. A “marigold” can be Calendula officinalisherb or Tagetesannual used as litter.
- If you’re growing herbs for sale, be careful to keep different plants separate when harvesting and drying, and be obsessive about labeling.
Simple is one herb. To ensure optimal safety, I make, buy, sell, teach and use simple herbal preparations, i.e. preparations containing only one herb. (Sometimes I add mint to flavor some medicine.)
The more medicinal plants are in the composition, the greater the probability of unwanted side effects. Understandably, the public is looking for combinations, hoping to get more with less. And many mistakenly believe that herbs must be used together to be effective (probably because potentially toxic herbs are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate the harm they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties, such as goldenseal and echinacea, is counterproductive and more likely to cause problems than simple. A simple tincture of echinacea is more effective than any combination and much safer.
Different people have different reactions to substances, be it drugs, food or herbs. If herbs are mixed in a mixture and someone who takes it has troubling side effects, there is no way to determine which herb is the cause. With simple things, it’s easy to figure out which herb does what. If side effects occur, other herbs with similar properties can be tried. Limiting the number of herbs you use in a day (to no more than four) offers additional protection.
Side effects from herbs are less common than drug side effects and usually less serious. If a certain herb disturbs digestion, it may be that the body learns to process it. Try a few more times before giving up. Stop taking herbs that cause nausea, dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, headache, or blurred vision. (These effects generally occur fairly quickly.) Slippery Elm is an excellent antidote to any type of poison.
If you are allergic to any food or medication, it is especially important to consult sources that list the side effects of herbs before using them.
UNDERSTAND THAT THE SAME COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PREPARATION MAY WORK DIFFERENTLY
The safety of any herbal medicine depends on how it is prepared and used.
- Tinctures and extracts contain alkaloids, or poisonous plant parts, and must be used carefully and wisely. Tinctures are as safe as the herb (see warnings below for tonic, stimulant, sedative, or potentially toxic herbs). Best used/sold as a single, not in combination, especially when strong herbs are used.
- Dried herbs teas or infusions contain the nourishing aspects of plants and are usually quite safe, especially if nourishing or tonic herbs are used.
- Dried herbs in capsules is generally the least effective way to use herbs. They are difficult to digest, difficult to use, often outdated or ineffective, and quite expensive.
- Infused vegetable oils is available as is or thickened into ointments. They are much safer than essential oils, which are highly concentrated and can be fatal if taken internally.
- Vegetable vinegars are not only decorative, but also rich in minerals. A good medium for nourishing and toning herbs; not as strong as stimulant/sedative tinctures.
- Vegetable glycerins are available for those who prefer to avoid alcohol, but are usually weaker than tinctures.
USE NOURISHING, TONIC, STIMULATING AND POSSIBLY TOXIC HERBS WISELY
Herbs comprise a group of several thousand plants with very different effects. Some are nourishing, some are tonic, some are stimulants and sedatives, and some are potential poisons. To use them wisely and well, we need to understand each category, its uses, the best method of preparation, and the usual dosage range.
Nourishing herbs are the safest of all herbs; side effects are rare. Nourishing herbs are taken in any quantity and for any length of time. They are used as food like spinach and kale. Nourishing herbs provide high amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes and essential fatty acids.
Examples nutritious herbs include: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula flowers, chickweed, sedge leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, linseed, honeysuckle flowers, lamb’s quarter, marshmallow, nettle, oat straw, plantain (leaves/seeds), plantain, seaweed, Siberian ginseng, slippery elm elm, violet leaves and wild mushrooms.
Tonic herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative, not immediate, effect. They create the functional capacity of an organ (such as the liver) or system (such as the immune system). Tonic herbs are most beneficial when used in small amounts over a long period of time. The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need to take. Mild tonics can be used in quantity like nourishing herbs.
There are occasional side effects when using tonics, but they are usually fairly short-lived. Many older herbalists mistakenly equated stimulant herbs with tonic herbs, leading to widespread misuse and serious side effects of many herbs.
Examples Tonic herbs include: barberry bark, burdock root/seeds, comfrey, crownwort, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane, fennel, garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail, melissa mantle, lemon balm, milk thistle seeds, yarrow root, mullein, pau d’arco, raspberry leaves, schisandra berries, St. John’s wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild yam and yellow dock.
Calming and stimulating herbs cause a variety of rapid reactions, some of which may be unwanted. Some parts of a person may be stressed to help other parts. Strong sedatives and stimulants, be they herbs or drugs, push us out of our normal range and can cause severe side effects. If we rely on them and then try to function without them, we end up more upset (or depressed) than we were before we started. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants—whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee—leads to loss of tone, dysfunction, and even physical dependence. The stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose should be and the shorter the duration of its use.
Herbs that invigorate and nourish while calming/stimulating are some of my favorite herbs. I use them freely as they are not addictive. Calming/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish: skeleton, catnip, citrus peel, bran, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, yarrow, oat straw, passion flower, mint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.
Strong sedative/stimulant herbs include: angelica, black pepper, blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, clove, coffee, licorice, opium poppy, osha root, lamb’s cake, sweet woodpecker, turkey rhubarb root, uva ursu leaves, valerian root, wild lettuce juice, willow bark and wintergreen leaves.
Potentially toxic herbs are intense, powerful medicines that are taken in small amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects are common.
Examples potentially poisonous herbs include: belladonna, bloodroot, hemlock, turkey pomace, foxglove, golden beak, chickweed, iris root, weed, lobelia, may apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, hemlock root, poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey root, wild cucumber root.
Additionally, consider these thoughts about using herbs safely:
- Honor the power of plants to dramatically transform body and mind.
- Increase confidence in the healing power of plants by trying remedies for minor or external problems before or during work on major, internal problems.
- Develop ongoing relationships with knowledgeable healers—in person or through books—who are interested in herbs.
- Respect the uniqueness of each plant, each person, each situation.
- Remember that each person becomes whole and heals in their own unique way, at their own speed. Humans, plants and animals can help this process. But it is the body/mind that heals. Don’t expect plants to cure everything.
Legal disclaimer: This content is not intended to replace standard medical care. All recommendations provided and herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal instructions and directions for use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare professional with a specific formula. you. All material contained herein is for general information purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or consultation. If you need medical attention, please contact a reputable healthcare professional. Use self-empowerment by seeking a second opinion.
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