Proper Herbal Self-Medication

Naomi E. Jackson

Village herbalists like my great-grandfather not only knew what herbs were good for which ailment, they knew about dosages, interactions and side effects as well. Today, few people are trained in the use of herbs, but the demand for and use of herbal remedies may far surpass the average person’s ability to use them knowledgeably and safely.

Traditional and alternative health practitioners alike have growing concerns about improper self-medication practices, and have cited a number of areas of concern. These include people discontinuing prescription drugs in favor of herbals without consulting their doctor, or a general lack of knowledge about potential drug interactions. People may choose the wrong herb, or delay seeing a health care practitioner about a potentially serious illness.

“People used to think there wasn’t a possibility of interactions between prescription drugs and herbs,” said Laurie Willhite, a PharmD with Fairview University Health Systems. “We’ve found out that’s wrong. For example, people taking prescription medications may become more anxious when taking an herbal supplement containing caffeine or ephedrine.” Andrew Lucking, a naturopathic physician located in south Minneapolis, shares Willhite’s concern. “Prescribed drugs interacting with herbs can have potentially deadly results,” he warned.

Herbs may also compromise the effectiveness of prescription medications. “Studies show that St. John’s Wort interferes with the action of drugs needed by people who’ve had transplants or who have HIV,” says Willhite. “It also may decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills.” A related problem, according to Greg Plotnikoff, Medical Director for the Center for Spirituality and Healing, is that most people do not tell their doctor that they are using alternative medicine. This interferes with the doctor’s ability to help make good decisions about their patient’s health. In the past, people have had an understandable reluctance to talk about non-traditional treatments they are using, but attitudes among western medical practitioners are changing. For example, they are becoming more accepting of non-traditional practices and appreciate patients’ desires to use non-biomedical techniques.

People using herbal remedies should also understand that an herb might have side effects. Plotnikoff cautioned that “Just because it is natural does not mean it is effective [or harmless].” Herbal remedies can have unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects. Essentially, an herb is a drug and needs to be treated with the same respect and caution.

If you are currently using herbs or want to try an herbal remedy, you can make informed decisions about which one to use and how much. Sources for this article offered the following helpful guidelines:

  • First and most important, be informed. Read, surf the Web, and seek out knowledgeable people. Find out about proper dosages, drug/herb interactions, side effects, and research results. Learn whether the herbal remedy you wish to take is the right one for you. (A list of resources is provided below.)
  • Be aware that labels don’t always equal contents. An herbal product may contain the leaf of a plant when what you really need is the root.
  • Stay away from multiple-ingredient products. You are exposed to more potential side effects, and usually none of the ingredients are present in therapeutic amounts.
  • Both Willhite and Lucking emphasized the importance of choosing reputable brands and caution against making your purchases at a place where low prices are the bottom line. Instead, go to places that specialize in herbs.
  • f you wish to use herbs medicinally, your best choice is to consult with someone who is trained in the field. Seek out naturopathic physicians (there are seven in the state of Minnesota) or a trained herbalist. Lucking warned that there are practitioners in a variety of fields who prescribe herbs without knowing what they are doing.
  • The best advice is to be as cautious with herbs as with prescription drugs. Don’t take them unless you really need them. By insuring that they are used safely and appropriately, each of us can help to make herbal remedies a regular and accepted form of health care.
Read Up

Botanical Safety Handbook, American Herbal Products Assn., Michael McGuffin, ed.

Dangerous Drug Interactions: The People’s Pharmacy Guide, Joe and Teresa Graedon

The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs, Varro Tyler, M.D.


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