Healing Herbs: 9 Herbal Safety Tips

Plants have the power to heal, but first get to know these basics for safe and effective results.


| October/November 2008


Humans, like most mammals, have turned to plants for food and medicine since our earliest times. No doubt some of our ancestors suffered the consequences of unfortunate choices along the way. If you read the book or watched the movie Into the Wild, you realize we sometimes still err, confusing a poisonous plant for edible greenery. People still mistake the death cap mushroom for something more savory. And a couple of years ago, I even found some teenage boys sitting along an irrigation ditch, fashioning poison hemlock stems into cigarette holders.

Nevertheless, most of the medicinal herbs sold in the United States are safe when taken in recommended dosages. More than 38 million Americans use herbs each year, yet the majority of calls to Poison Control Centers about plant ingestions have to do with people (usually children) and pets eating potentially poisonous house and garden plants—not medicinal herbs.

To ensure your experiences with medicinal herbs remain positive—without inadvertent mishaps—follow these nine basic guidelines.

1. Start with Food Herbs

You can bet on safety when you use herbs as foods—think garlic, ginger, nettles, dandelion greens, shiitake mushrooms, nettles, burdock root (also called gobo) and rosehips. Culinary herbs—thyme, oregano, turmeric, cayenne—are also low-risk. Externally applied herbs (compresses, poultices, salves) provide another good testing ground.



The next step is to begin experimenting with infusions (commonly known as “teas”).  Many of the food herbs mentioned above can be dried, chopped, and steeped as tea. Extracts of herbs in alcohol (tinctures) or glycerin (glycerites) generally are more potent. Solid extracts, in which all the solvent has been removed, and carbon dioxide-extract herbs are stronger still. Standardized extracts are designed to have a consistent level of suspected active ingredients from batch to batch. This process allows for more precise dosing and easier use in research, but also makes the product closer to a drug.

2. Allergy-Prone? Proceed with Caution

Simon Mills, an internationally known herbal authority and coauthor of The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety (Elsevier, 2005), says, “Allergic reactions are the most common type of herbal side effect although still infrequent.” Sensitive people who handle plants or apply them to their skin could develop contact dermatitis (an itchy skin rash), and inhaling the herbs could aggravate hay fever or asthma. Allergic responses to ingested herbs include skin rash, stomach upset and, at the extreme, life-threatening anaphylaxis.








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