There are two comments bound to make any credible herbalist cringe. One is “It can’t hurt me, it’s all natural,” and the other is “herbs don’t have any side effects or interactions.” Both are wrong. They can hurt you and they do have side effects and interactions.
Dangerous Herbs: Two good examples in this category are ephedra and blue cohosh. Ephedra has often been used in weight loss products. It was once banned but seems to now be in some sort of grey area. The problem is that it could kill you. The substance in it is chemically similar to epinephrine, and it could cause a heart attack, amongst other things.
Blue cohosh is sometimes recommended to speed childbirth. The good news is that it can do just that. The bad news is that both mother and child could die before the baby is even born. Infants have been born having heart attacks because their mother took blue cohosh.
Cautionary Herbs: Some herbs may be effective, but the number of side effects, interactions or preparation methods makes herbalists nervous unless properly prepared. Cherry bark is great for stopping a cough, but it isn’t something for those who don’t know how to prepare it to work with. The principle that helps stop the cough is cyanide, and too much of that will kill you.
Licorice is another good example. The problem here are the side effects and interactions. The root is high in sugar, so it could cause problems in diabetics. It raises blood pressure, so it could cause problems for those with high blood pressure or heart disease. In fact, it can cause heart rhythm problems in healthy people.
GRAS: This acronym stands for “generally recognized as safe.” While these herbs do have side effects and interactions, most people can take them safely. Chamomile, garlic, lemon balm and so forth are all on this list.
There are three ways herbs can have a major effect on your body. Knowing the herb and what these terms mean may help you make the right decision.
Interaction: This problem happens when two things are combined that react to each other. If you’ve ever done the “volcano” experiment, you’ve seen one outside your body. If you mix vinegar and baking soda, it will foam up. Some herbs do that inside the body, both with other herbs and with medications. While this is all right on occasion, most of the time interactions are not considered good things.
Side Effects: The main action of chamomile is to help calm a person down. One of the side effects is it makes that person sleepy. Another is that it could cause uterine contractions. These side effects can be a problem if you’re driving somewhere or you’re pregnant. That’s what a side effect is; something other than the main reason you’re taking the supplement.
Medical Conditions: Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and immune function diseases can all react negatively to certain herbs. I’ve already mentioned licorice, which covers the first two. When it comes to the immune system, another popular herb is a problem. It is not advised to take Echinacea if you have any problem that affects that system.
Choosing the right supplement is not like picking out a new pair of shoes. Talk to your doctor, your pharmacist and if possible a qualified herbal practitioner. We may be able to help you find a supplement that is right for you and doesn’t do you more harm than good.