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Cautions About Using Herbs Medicinally

As with any treatment of our bodies, we need to be careful when using herbs to treat conditions.  Most herbs are diffused enough to be very difficult to truly overdo using them, but, we need to use common sense and have as much information as possible.  I've seen it best explained with an exerpt from Michael Moore's "Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West" below:

"Several considerations must be kept in mind when using herbs to remedy a physical imbalance or disease.  Acute illnesses, those with quick onset, strong symptoms, and a self-limiting nature, should be treated simply, using one or two herbs.  The purpose of botanicals here is to give comfort, speed defense reactions, and limit and define the course to prevent complications or prolonging. Common sense is paramount, since the remedies may not be sufficient or may cause an overreaction. The use of salicylate herbs (Birch, Poplar, Willow, etc) may turn a fever into chills. Conversely, stimulating the fever, as with Elder or Yarrow, can prove excessive on occasion. Any reaction which itself denigrates or impedes the body's strength must be avoided, since one of the main validities of proper herb therapy is to aid and augment defense responses without hindering them with toxicities. Since the pharmacology of most herbs is so diffused, they are rarely focused enough to supplant or sidestep body defenses in the manner of some drugs.  Although these same drugs will usually have distinct secondary toxicities, they often serve valid semiheroic functions where an individual has failed to regain internal equilibrium.  Excessive quantities of an herb sufficient to cause a toxic reaction simply compromise basic health without the synthetic defenses offered by some drugs......

The combining of drug and herb therapy can be useful, useless, or disaster prone, and is far too unpredictable to deal with in great detail. An herb such as Alfalfa, with virtually no systemic effect other than as a source of soluble nutrients, is a useful adjunct to drug therapies, but otherwise it is safest to leave each to it's separate realm. Some specific horrors should be mentioned, however, like aspirin, the salicylate herbs should never be combined with anticoagulant drugs.  These include Birch, Poplar, Willow, and probably even members of the Ericaceae order such as Blueberry, Pipsissewa, Pyrola, Manzanita, and Uva Ursi. Herbs with pronounced sedative effects, like their drug counterparts, should not be consumed with alcohol.....or their drug counterparts. More complex and unpredictable drug approaches such as anticholinergics, adrenergic blocking agents, and the like should be taken under the closest supervision and not combined with any herb, since one can create a witches' brew of side effects.  Herbs containing coumarin may be safe as teas (Sweet Clover, Woodruff, etc) but can become frankensteinian combinations with some drugs. A plant high in tannins will prevent or slow down absorption of drug substances or even precipitate them out completely. At the same time, laxative herbs or those affecting liver function may seriously alter the predictability of a drug action. Much study has gone into the fate and absorption rates of drug therapy, and doses are set on normal metabolizations, with herbal laxatives and liver stimulants only interfering. 

The time of day and mode of use affects the strength of reaction to many herbs. Sedatives and laxatives work best when their use coincides with normal patterns of sleep and defecation. A bitter tonic or stomachic works best when taken shortly before meals or predictable discomfort.  Potential irritants, such as Bayberry or Cayenne, should be taken on a full stomach, herbs meant to work quickly, on an empty stomach. An herb taken for recurring symptoms that give advance warning (such as migraine headaches) or are part of a predictable stress (such as insomnia or hangovers) works better when taken before the discomfort has ripened. 

In dealing with young children a great deal of caution must be used, since body defenses can quickly prove inadequate, and the speed at which an ailment can become dangerous is often foreshortened. In young children and infants, the speed of an infection may not be quantitively different than an adult, but an organ or tissues can be compromised much sooner because of the considerably smaller volume of resistant tissue.  One should be especially cautious in totally relying on home remedies for small children when the sickness is febrile (feverish), eruptive, or involves diarrhea or the eyes, ears or mouth. Also, any lung infections should be approached conservatively.  The most fanatically devout follower of natural healing methods should still take an infant or young child to a physician when there is any doubt at all, since the course of such diseases can be quick, volatile, and unpredictable. On the other hand, children respond very well to the simplest, most benign herb remedies. Seldom is anything stronger than Vervain necessary to bring them both palliative and substantive relief. Doses, of course, should be half or a third as much. 

Similarly, certain modifications should be used in treating the aged. They are usually more sensitive to herbs and drugs, and smaller quantities should be used, from one-half to two-thirds as much. Special care should be taken when an herb has a nauseating or cathartic effect. A safe quantity of Lobelia under other circumstances can induce a depressing, clammy nausea in an aged person; an energetic laxative may produce painful cramps and irritate the colon or small intestine. The equilibrium of health is often more delicate with the aged, with only small changes causing great discomfort..

......Still the ideal circumstance is to know (or be) a physician that will allow for the validity of herbal medicine yet act as a screen for more serious problems.  Lacking that, get to know your body and use common sense.  Even though a drug therapy may not always be the best approach, the best diagnostician for the nuts-and-bolts mechanistic problems of the body is a physician, the best judge for drug therapies is a pharmacist."

I'm the biggest advocate of using herbs to treat ourselves, however, it does require using some logic and finding as much information as we can get. We want whatever therapy we use to be effective and we certainly want to make sure we aren't hurting more than helping.