Unlike vitamins, which consumers use primarily for prevention, unrefined herbs — the leaves, bark, flowers, berries, or roots of plants which are not yet a part of mainstream medicine are typically used as treatments, for everything from colds to cancer. Nevertheless, herbs are readily incorporated into medical practices in some countries of the world.
Some herbs are effective, after all, prescription drugs are derived from them but natural isn’t synonymous to safe and it sure does not mean it works either. Herbs are not required to undergo safety tests, making it difficult to be sure if any are completely safe. Although, drug agencies have judged some herbs as safe and effective, allowing them to be sold over the counter as drugs, the safest herbs are those for which no one has reported toxic effects. Examples of such herbs include ginger, milk thistle and garlic. However, the absence of negative reports about a substance is not a proof of safety, since people do not always associate their symptoms with herbs they are taking. Thus, many adverse effects probably go unnoticed and unreported.
Moreover, there are a lot of herbs sold, whose effectiveness is unproven. For instance, there is little documentation for the supposed ability of a Chinese root called ginseng to build up the body’s resistance to stress and disease and to enhance sexual potency. Similarly, garlic’s power to strengthen the immune system, prevent cancer remains highly controversial. Still, that does not mean that these herbs and others do not do something to the body. In fact, ingredients in some products sold as herbs are similar to over-the-counter drugs. White willow bark, for instance, is a lot like aspirin. Both belong to a class of compounds called salicylates and so have similar effects on the body. Meanwhile, many herbs in the market pose a risk because they are unregulated and thus bear no warning labels mentioning side effects or safe dosages. For instance, consumers are not told on a package of white willow bark that this herb, like aspirin, can upset the stomach, cause bleeding during pregnancy, increase the risk of a stroke, or spawn Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness appearing in some feverish children given aspirin.
In addition, herbal products are not subject to careful quality control; thus, undesirable substances can sneak in without anyone knowing. For example, herbs boiled in clay or metal pots, may contain traces of toxic substances such as lead, mercury or arsenic and sometimes products contain misidentified plant parts.
To ensure that your are using herbal medicines safely and effectively, observe the following precautions:
Don’t use herbal preparations to self-treat serious medical conditions or persistent symptoms.
Don’t give children herbal remedies without medical supervision.
Don’t take herbal medicines if you are pregnant or a nursing mother.
Tell your doctor about any herbal remedies you are taking, because herbs can interact with conventional drugs.
Never take more than the recommended dosage of an herbal preparation.
Stop taking the herbal immediately if you notice an adverse reaction, and report any negative reactions.
Purchase herbal preparations from reliable, trustworthy sources.
When taking laboratory or drug tests, advise the person administering the test of any herbal preparations you are taking because herbs can trigger false findings in tests for drug abuse and can invalidate routine lab tests.