Using Herbs Simply and Safely
c.2002 Susun S Weed
author of Breast Cancer?
Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way
Are herbs “dilute forms of drugs” - and therefore dangerous?
Or are they “natural” - and therefore safe? If you sell
herbs, you probably hear these questions often. What is the “right”
answer? It depends on the herb! These thoughts on herbs will help you
explain to your customers (and yourself) how safe - or dangerous - any
herb might be.
To prevent problems when selling or using herbs:
1. Be certain you have the correct plant.
2. Use simples.
3. Understand that different preparations of the same herb can work
4. Use nourishing, tonifying, stimulating, and potentially poisonous
BE CERTAIN YOU HAVE THE CORRECT PLANT
One of the easiest ways to get into trouble with an herb is to use the
“wrong” one. How could that happen? Common names for herbs
overlap, causing confusion as to the proper identity. Herbs that are
labeled correctly may contain extraneous material from another, more
dangerous, herb. Herbs may be picked at the wrong stage of growth or
handled incorrectly after harvesting, causing them to develop detrimental
Protect yourself and your customers with these simple steps:
- Buy herbs only from reputable suppliers.
- Only buy herbs that are labeled with their botanical name. Botanical
names are specific, but the same common names can refer to several
different plants. “Marigold” can be Calendula officinalis,
a medicinal herb, or Tagetes, an annual used as a bedding plant.
- If you grow the herbs you sell, be meticulous about keeping different
plants separate when you harvest and dry them, and obsessive about
A simple is one herb. For optimum safety, I prepare, buy, sell, teach
about and use herbal simples, that is: preparations containing only
one herb. (Occasionally I will add some mint to flavor a remedy.)
The more herbs there are in a formula, the more likelihood there is
of unwanted side-effects. Understandably, the public seeks combinations,
hoping to get more for less. And many mistakenly believe that herbs
must be used together to be effective (probably because potentially
poisonous herbs are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate
the damage they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties,
such as goldenseal and echinacea, is counter-productive and more likely
to cause trouble than a simple. A simple tincture of echinacea is
more effective than any combination and much safer.
Different people have different reactions to substances, whether drugs,
foods, or herbs. When herbs are mixed together in a formula and someone
taking it has distressing side effects, there is no way to determine
which herb is the cause. With simples, it's easy to tell which herb
is doing what. If there's an adverse reaction, other herbs with similar
properties can be tried. Limiting the number of herbs used in any
one day (to no more than four) offers added protection.
Side effects from herbs are less common than side effects from drugs
and usually less severe. If an herb disturbs the digestion, it may
be that the body is learning to process it. Give it a few more tries
before giving up. Stop taking any herb that causes nausea, dizziness,
sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, headache, or blurred vision. (These
effects will generally occur quite quickly.) Slippery elm is an excellent
antidote to any type of poison.
If you are allergic to any foods or medicines, it is especially important
to consult resources that list the side effects of herbs before you
UNDERSTAND THAT DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS OF THE SAME HERB CAN
The safety of any herbal remedy is dependent on the way it
is prepared and used.
- Tinctures and extracts contain the alkaloids, or poisonous, parts
of plants and need to be used with care and wisdom. Tinctures are
as safe as the herb involved (see cautions below for tonifying, stimulating,
sedating, or potentially poisonous herbs). Best used/sold as simples,
not combinations, especially when strong herbs are being used.
- Dried herbs made into teas or infusions contain the nourishing
aspects of the plants and are usually quite safe, especially when
nourishing or tonifying herbs are used.
- Dried herbs in capsules are generally the least effective way to
use herbs. They are poorly digested, poorly utilized, often stale
or ineffective, and quite expensive.
- Infused herbal oils are available as is, or thickened into ointments.
They are much safer than essential oils, which are highly concentrated
and can be lethal if taken internally.
- Herbal vinegars are not only decorative but mineral-rich as well.
A good medium for nourishing and tonifying herbs; not as strong as
tinctures for stimulants/sedatives.
- Herbal glycerins are available for those who prefer to avoid alcohol
but are usually weaker in action than tinctures.
USE NOURISHING, TONIFYING, STIMULATING, & POTENTIALLY
POISONOUS HERBS WISELY
Herbs comprise a group of several thousand plants with widely varying
actions. Some are nourishers, some tonifiers, some stimulants and
sedatives, and some are potential poisons. To use them wisely and
well, we need to understand each category, its uses, best manner of
preparation, and usual dosage range.
Nourishing herbs are the safest of all herbs; side effects are rare.
Nourishing herbs are taken in any quantity for any length of time.
They are used as foods, just like spinach and kale. Nourishing herbs
provide high levels of proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants,
carotenes, and essential fatty acids.
Examples of nourishing herbs are: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula
flowers, chickweed, comfrey leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, flax seeds,
honeysuckle flowers, lamb’s quarter, marshmallow, nettles, oatstraw,
plantain (leaves/seeds), purslane, red clover blossoms, seaweed, Siberian
ginseng, slippery elm, violet leaves, and wild mushrooms.
Tonifying herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative, rather
than immediate, effect. They build the functional ability of an organ
(like the liver) or a system (like the immune system). Tonifying herbs
are most beneficial when they are used in small quantities for extended
periods of time. The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need
to take. Bland tonics may be used in quantity, like nourishing herbs.
Side effects occasionally occur with tonics, but are usually quite
short-term. Many older herbalists mistakenly equated stimulating herbs
with tonifying herbs, leading to widespread misuse of many herbs,
and severe side effects.
Examples of tonifying herbs are: barberry bark, burdock root/seeds,
chaste tree, crone(mug)wort, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane,
fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail,
lady’s mantle, lemon balm, milk thistle seeds, motherwort, mullein,
pau d’arco, raspberry leaves, schisandra berries, St. Joan’s
wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild yam, and yellow dock.
Sedating and stimulating herbs cause a variety of rapid reactions,
some of which may be unwanted. Some parts of the person may be stressed
in order to help other parts. Strong sedatives and stimulants, whether
herbs or drugs, push us outside our normal ranges of activity and
may cause strong side effects. If we rely on them and then try to
function without them, we wind up more agitated (or depressed) than
before we began. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants -
whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee - leads to loss of
tone, impairment of functioning, and even physical dependency. The
stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose needs to be, and the
shorter the duration of its use.
Herbs that tonify and nourish while sedating/stimulating are some
of my favorite herbs. I use them freely, as they do not cause dependency.
Sedating/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish: boneset, catnip,
citrus peel, cleavers, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, motherwort,
oatstraw, passion flower, peppermint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.
Strongly sedating/stimulating herbs include: angelica, black pepper,
blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, licorice,
opium poppy, osha root, shepherd’s purse, sweet woodruff, turkey
rhubarb root, uva ursu leaves, valerian root, wild lettuce sap, willow
bark, and wintergreen leaves.
Potentially poisonous herbs are intense, potent medicines that are
taken in tiny amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects
Examples of potentially poisonous herbs are: belladonna, blood-root,
celandine, chaparral, foxglove, goldenseal, henbane, iris root, Jimson
weed, lobelia, May apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, poke root,
poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey corn root, wild cucumber root.
In addition, consider these thoughts on using herbs safely:
- Respect the power of plants to change the body and spirit in dramatic
- Increase trust in the healing effectiveness of plants by trying
remedies for minor or external problems before, or while, working
with major and internal problems.
- Develop ongoing relationships with knowledgeable healers - in person
or in books - who are interested in herbal medicine.
- Honor the uniqueness of every plant, every person, every situation.
- Remember that each person becomes whole and healed in their own
unique way, at their own speed. People, plants, and animals can help
in this process. But it is the body/spirit that does the healing.
Don’t expect plants to be cure-alls.
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