Efficacy & Safety: Summary
Please read on below for some important points on SAFETY when using Herbs and Nutritional Remedies. Note that I refer to Herbal Medicine and Nutrition primarily, as this is what I am trained in.
On the whole (especially when under professional guidance), most natural therapies (especially nutrition, aromatherapy and herbal medicine) have a fantastic safety rating – in fact much safer than most drugs on the market! Now that is not to say there won’t be adverse effects, but these are relatively rare. Nevertheless, take heed of the below.
If you wish to take Natural Remedies (Herbs, Supplements etc..) ALWAYS seek professional advice (from both your doctor AND a herbalist/naturopath) IF:
* You have a serious health condition
* You have liver / kidney disease or insufficiency
* You are taking pharmaceutical medications
* You are undergoing Chemotherapy
* You have a planned surgery/anaesthesia
* You are pregnant/breastfeeding
* You wish to give herbs/nutrients to young children or babies
* You have a history of severe allergic reactions.
* Be open with your healthcare practitioners as to what remedies/medications you are taking.
* Be cautious of self-diagnosing and self-prescribing.
* Do your own research – and be aware of ‘Herb-Nutrient-Drug’ interactions.
* Follow professional advice in regards to herbs/doses/time-frame etc…
* When taking any new herb/nutrient for the first time, it is always best practice to start off with a small dose to start with and monitor your reaction. Build up doses slowly.
* Have a break once in a while – no food/herb is intended to be taken continuously for your entire life. Rotate your herbs/supplements in the same way that your rotate your foods season to season.
To put your mind at ease, remember that a qualified naturopath / nutritionist / herbalist etc… is trained to work within their scope of practice and they will generally consider all risks when devising a treatment plan. This expertise is what you pay for!
Now that you’ve read the main points, please read-on below for a more comprehensive view on HERB/NUTRITION SAFETY within the framework of modern medicine. Hopefully it will help to separate fact from fiction.
Be Savvy! Get educated…
Here are some more pointers on the topic of safety when taking Herbs: It all comes down to EDUCATION, COMMUNICATION, PROFESSIONAL GUIDANCE – you can refer to some good Herbal/Nutrition books but for serious conditions or if any of the above points apply, it is always recommended to consult with a qualified Natural Health professional, such as a Herbalist.
In regards to plants as medicine specifically… yes – of course not all plants are safe to consume! Keep this in mind if you decide to self-treat and pick your own herbs in the wild! Luckily– herbalists are expertly trained and the herbs that they use have a long history of use and generally have excellent safety records, when used correctly. There are some herbs to treat with caution, but as I said, a trained herbalist will be aware of these and take adequate precautions.
This is not to say you can’t self-treat minor ailments with many of the well known backyard herbs/local hedgerow plants, after all, herbs are known as ‘Medicine of the People’ – part of our heritage and rightfully free for all to use. Knowledge is power and if you know how to use plants/foods to manage your health, it is an invaluable asset. Just make sure you are well-read/educated on the topic and know when to seek professional advice. For some useful ‘Herbal Medicine’ and ‘Natural Health’ links – take a look under the RESOURCES tab
A warning on self-diagnosing and self-prescribing
Self-diagnosing and self-prescribing can also be harmful for another reason, because minor symptoms can be a sign of a bigger underlying issue (which you might not necessarily pick up on – but a trained professional would). For a medical diagnosis you need to visit your GP.
Be aware of Interactions with medications
These days when people are on so many medications, there can of course be interactions. However if you disclose all your medications in the consultation, your therapist will consider this and will avoid any herbs/foods/supplements that could interact. Regular monitoring is also an important aspect of any treatment plan. There are also online tools to search for possible interactions (an ongoing area of research) and I have included a couple of links to useful websites over in my RESOURCES
Bad reactions to a BAD product
There have been a handful of cases in the news where people have reacted badly to herbal/nutritional products purchased… or products that simply don’t work. These are often purchased from dubious companies selling ‘Natural’ products – usually online. The reactions or lack of efficacy is due to a poor quality product – or worse… contaminated or substituted products. This is why it is important to visit a qualified naturopath/herbalist/nutritionist who will prescribe high quality trusted brands.
Not adhering to the recommended Dose! Naughty Naughty…
The old issue of dose – anything can be toxic in the wrong dose– including over the counter drugs such as paracetamol or even table salt or sugar! Again, if you follow the guidelines provided by the practitioner this should not be an issue. Listen to the professional advice given to you! Please.
Individual Reactions to a Normally Safe Product
Allergic reactions (which can occur to anything- including foods) and individual adverse effects are random, unexpected events. The same happens in the medical world where an individual can react badly to a certain drug – sometimes there is no way of knowing who will react to what. Luckily this is rare, but if you develop a reaction when taking a natural supplements/herb then stop taking and seek medical advice/consult with the practitioner who prescribed it or the company you purchased it from.
Natural vs Pharmaceutical?
A Modern-Day Witch-Hunt
This image is from Boscastle, Cornwall (a coastal enclave with a distinctly Witchy past!)
‘Dangerous’ Alternative Remedies or ‘Ineffective Quackery’
Hear these in the media a lot? Yawn… Exactly what ‘alternative therapy’ this referring to, it often fails to say?! Homeopathy, Massage Therapy, Reiki, Aromatherapy, Herbal Medicine, Nutrition? My bone of contention is that ‘Natural Therapies’ are often lumped together and branded with the same old generalisations and vague warnings; however the reality is that each therapy is unique and entirely different from another and so naturally, each has a totally different risk/evidence profile. Yes there are dubious therapies out there and good/bad practitioners as in any industry, but generalisations like this do not help! There is so much blatant mis-information out there, that it does sometimes feel like a modern-day witch-hunt!
A Herbalist is someone who uses plants to support health & wellbeing. Being trained in both Herbal Medicine and Nutrition, I advocate the use of food and plants to support health. It’s nothing supernatural, just nature! The educated use of plants is our human heritage which has been practiced for thousands of years and this self-sufficiency is something we have to fight for. Modern herbalists and Naturopaths are being marginalised, much in the same ways that many an innocent herbalist was tarred with the ‘witch’ brush in times past & all the fear and negative connotations that lable held! Religion/politics/greed has a lot to answer for!
Before I go on – I want to say I am most certainly not ‘anti-drugs’! Modern Medicine is incredible and doctors have specialist skills that many herbalists/naturopaths do not. There are many instances where natural remedies cannot compete and I would choose a standard medical option over a herbal option. Just as there are instances where I would personally choose a Natural Health Practitioner and Herbs over pharmaceuticals, it all depends on the issue at hand and there is no reason why the two systems can’t work hand in hand. It needn’t be one or the other! What I do want is a fair and safe health system – with options and freedom of choice.
‘Dangerous’ Herbs and Supplements?
So the media loves to report on ‘dangerous’ herbs and supplements, but for some perspective on ‘safety’ in comparison to pharmaceutical medicines, consider this… Each year, prescription meds cause hundreds of thousands of deaths – and that is when they are properly prescribed- not to forget the many more deaths related to improper prescribing. The overall number runs into the millions per year! This also does not even include serious adverse side effects caused by drugs, which may not result in death but do cause serious long lasting damage.
Compare this to vitamins or professionally prescribed herbs and you will see that the track record is pretty good! I would struggle to find a death by vitamin case. Similarly, adverse effects due to herbal medicine are extremely rare and usually due to contamination/misidentification/adulterated sources/poor quality products/improper use or rare individual reactions (as can occur with anything- including food, herb or pharmaceutical) Caution is impostant but lets keep some perspective here! Both natural remedies and pharmaceutical have their place.
Is ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ really the gold standard?
The medical profession love the term ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ and reject natural therapies because of the so called ‘lack of evidence’, but scientific evidence is not the holy grail of medicine and simply disregarding thousands of years of traditional knowledge is supremely ignorant. But consider that around 50% of medicines are recalled in the first decade– after they are approved as safe and ‘evidence-based’, when previously unknown side effects come to the surfacer– it obviously isn’t such good ‘evidence’ after all. Science does not always translate to real-life.
Side-Effects of Medications
It is common that the side effects of certain drugs (especially those taken over the long term) can end up being worse than the initial condition for which they are intended to treat. Coincidentally, this is one of the main reasons why so many people are reverting back to time-tested herbal remedies (for some conditions)
Take the drug Vioxx as one example, this anti-inflammatory drug was prescribed to millions of people with arthritis & such from 1999-2004 and was subsequently withdrawn because it caused heart disease in 90 000-140 000 people and killed nearly 60 000. Another more recent case is Valproate, a commonly prescribed epilepsy drug which is now under investigation for causing birth defects when taken in pregnancy. Now these are just 2 cases of drugs which were supposedly ‘evidence based’ and approved as SAFE.
Can you imagine the consequences if this was a ‘natural remedy’? So it seems to me that the obsession with ‘dangerous herbs and nutrients’ is a bit like a modern day witch hunt. I agree that more research needs to be done- this can only be a good thing in helping us to understand more about how the herbs/foods/nutrients work and highlight any possible dangers, however laboratory trials alone should not govern the use of natural medicines. Traditional knowledge and a long established history of safe use is equally as important.
Pharmaceutical Giants and the ££££ machine….
No You Can’t Patent Nature! (for now)
Money makes the world go round… this is the #1 reason Pharmaceutical companies dumb down the remarkable effects of lifestyle interventions, food, herbs and other natural substances. Why? Because they can’t make money from them in their raw unprocessed form. Just imagine what would happen to the profits of the big drug companies, if a food/herb or simple lifestyle change turns out to be more effective and safer than the standard drug prescribed (as is often the case!) Hence the vendetta and increasing control over ‘natural’ therapies. Drugs make money. Plants not so much. Sadly the drug companies are so big, they have a remarkable amount of power and leverage when it comes to legislation, clinical trials, education and the media. Sad but true. We natural champs have to fight our corner!
So why is there not more scientific data for Herbs/Foods/Supplements?
Simple… there is a gross lack of funding for natural therapies and a strong bias towards Pharmaceuticals. Granted, the pile of clinical trials on natural products and lifestyle interventions is growing. However, this is still nothing compared to the trials being dedicated to drugs. A big issue with natural therapies and scientific evidence is that clinical trials are so expensive that usually only the multi-billion $$ drug companies are able to fund them. As I mentioned, you can’t patent and make money from food or herbs, so the incentive to fund trials is just not there. Small-scale herbal medicine manufacturers in the UK and Europe can’t pay for them and have been driven into the ground.
Scientific research is also heavily biased towards pharmaceuticals (universities being heavily funded by the Pharmaceutical Companies). Limited funding is given to study a handful of natural remedies, but it still is not comparable in terms of quantity & quality of the trials – there simply isn’t the money there so it’s a catch 22.
Lastly, a large number of the ‘alternative medicine’ trials that have been done to date are not all that valid– they are done on animals, or using unrealistic doses, inadquate time frames, poor quality herbs/synthetic vitamins or even the wrong species or part of a plant! In addition, there is rarely any input from qualified nutritionists or herbal experts. More research is needed, but it can only be a good thing if done properly (without vested interests). Professional Herbalists and Nutritionists also need to be involved in research, much more than they currently are – for it to be truly valid.
The Growing Natural Health Industry – Good & Bad
Now I can’t say all this about the Pharmaceutical industry without mentioning the Natural Products Industry. Natural Health is a growing ‘trend’, and the industry is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Unfortunately Natural Health companies are not immune to the capitalist money-making machine. They too want to make profits and so the realm of natural health is changing too. This growth has both pros (in the form of investment into plant research and formulating high quality plant products to benefit more people) and cons (in regards to sustainablitily, the rising cost of herbal remedies and turning herbal medicine into herbal ‘drugs’ as opposed to affordable whole plants).
Again, it all boils down to self-education, looking after our natural resources and preserving traditional herbal knowledge. Taking the best parts of scientific understanding whilst retaining what is inherently the medicine of the people & the planet! (all people, not just those who can afford to buy expensive supplements)
To Conclude: Food and Plants – A Human trial lasting Millennia!
Overall, I’m really proud to be trained as a Herbalist. The beauty about Nutrition and Herbal Medicine is that they have a long history of use, spanning hundreds or even thousands of years – this speaks volumes about safety and efficacy. You want a clinical trial- here are mass human trials that have lasted generations! Though it may not be double-blind, placebo controlled! 😉 So the conclusion- I assure you that herbs and nutrition are generally very safe and effective, especially when prescribed by a knowledgeable practitioner!
Like I said, I’m certainly not ‘anti-drugs’, they (like natural remedies) have their place and there are times when I would choose a drug over a herbal treatment program. However for a truly beneficial healthcare system – we need both!
Now I hope reading this has answered some of your concerns about Natural Therapies, for more info on foods/nutrients/plants and how they work … do take a look under the tabs of ‘Nutrition’ and ‘Herbal Medicine’ in this section.