Staying Safe With Herbs

Cameron Bishop, DAOM, L.Ac. 
Copyrighted Article. As Seen in "Natural Awakenings" Magazine.


Herbal therapies are gaining more interest as the public moves away from the pharmaceuticals side effects. Some of the subjects we will touch upon are beyond the scope of an article, but I hope you will gain some understanding of the use and misuse of herbs.

There are generally three types of patients: 1) Some that can take full dose of anything and have no ill effects, 2) Those that are normal and have mild side effects and 3) Those that can not take western medication or very little since they have severe reactions. There are also a rare few that have opposite reactions to the medications.

Western medicine is both evidence (studies), and experience based (clinical practice). Most medications are clinically used for something other than for which they were studied. Most ‘practice medicine' is learned in residencies and internships and is centered on the symptom cessation. Most other traditions center upon treating an underlying disharmony first (cause), and then the result of that disharmony (symptom). To over simplify: fix the leaky pipe (cause) rather than keep cleaning up the water on the floor (symptom). Western views tend to see the body mechanically using Cartesian and linear thought. This is excellent for some endeavors, such as, emergency medicine, and surgery. In the Eastern tradition, the body is seen as a garden or ecosystem. Management of all the components leads to maximum productivity and longevity.

There are thousands of years of written and oral history about herbs. Most medications come from herbs. The key component is taken out, concentrated and taken up to a toxic dose, and then reduced to determine a therapeutic dose. For example: Aspirin comes from White Willow and in toxic doses causes ear ringing. Because herbs have the original components, the number of side effects is less but sometimes they have to be taken longer and in bigger doses to have the same effect. The advantage of herbs is easier dosing, and fewer side effects. Herbal formulas often address two components- the cause and the result. Often in a chronic situation, a cause can take three months or more to shift in a positive direction before you will be able to ‘see' a result.

No medicine is one hundred percent effective. If the desired results from herbal therapies are not happening it can be from a variety of reasons: the dosage could be incorrect, the herbs themselves may not be potent due to age or condition, the frequency not being taken as recommended, not enough time taking them, and/or simply the herb is not getting into the body.

The strongest potency is fresh herbal liquid boiled at home. The bad taste and smell makes compliance low. Next are premade herbal liquids, but their shelf life is short. The next level of potency is powders mixed in water or placed in capsules. The lowest is compressed caplets.

Thus, we can see that there are a variety of reasons why herbal therapies don't have the desirable effect. The same concept also holds true in western medicine: compliance, dose, strength, absorption and more.

We are cutting new trails in integrative medicine, and we don't always know how food, chemicals, medications, herbs, vitamins and supplements all intermix. The safest way to take herbs is to keep them a couple hours apart and, of course, check with your physician. Often people are taking too much. Sometimes stopping everything (except pharmaceuticals) -helps the patient feel better after a few weeks. Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen, or just too many substances going through the organs. I have seen this most commonly in patients with vague belly symptoms or dull headaches.

A person can be taking several products for all with the right reasons but the combinations unknowingly can cause a problem. One might take vitamin C for the immune system, Gingko for memory, Vitamin E for arthritis, and aspirin from the doctor, but each one of these thin the blood. One unknowingly has created a problem.

One scenario might be to fix one system of the body to heal another. In fertility cases time is needed to regulate the cycle. Once regulated, the body is ready to accept fertility herbs and acupuncture. In the case of, it takes months to rebuild the body systems. Impatience and unrealistic expectations have cost lots of people time, money and effort.

It is difficult to sum up herbal theory and treatment strategy to a patient. All of this can be overwhelming and leads us to the question: ‘How do we find good herbal help?' You want someone with good instinct, education, experience, solid degrees, open and honest. Making decisions together is better than blindly following.