Guidelines for using herbal medicines safely and effectively

Using herbal medicine safely and effectively requires attention to guidelines. I have provided those that seem important to me here. These points might seem pretty obvious to most people.

  1. Take your time, educate yourself, and please do not do anything rash. I think it is worth taking time to study every herb you want to use in detail. It is best to research across at least 4 good quality sources. Both traditional (e.g. text books by Maria Groves or Rosemary Goldstar) and scientific sources (e.g. Examine, WebMD) are recommended as they complement one another.
  2. Do not stop seeing your ordinary doctor and believing in the value of conventional medicine. The site is more geared towards people with minor issues they don’t want to take drugs for, or people who have found completely inadequate relief with mainstream medicine and are therefore desperate. There are many of these people out there, unfortunately.
  3. Consult an experienced herbal practitioner if you feel like you need help. Do research into who is the best person in your area, traveling further distances may be helpful.
  4. If pregnant or breastfeeding, be ultra cautious. Many herbs are not definitely not safe in these situations. It is best to work with an experienced practitioner if you are in this situation.
  5. More herb is not necessarily better. In fact, especially for chronic conditions, many herbs work well taken at fairly low doses for long periods of time. It may be best to start with a lower dose, only increasing if really necessary.
  6. If you are already on pharmaceutical drugs, be more cautious. Research interactions carefully and be aware effects are often additive. E.g. sedative herb plus a sedative drug = more sedation. This kind of effect can be dangerous. Also, certain herbs, like St. John’s wort, will increase the metabolic break down of drugs. When dependent on a drug for lowering blood pressure this effect could be harmful. You can ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential drug-herb interactions. WebMD has a lot of this information as well. It is best to inform your doctor of any herbs you are taking, especially if already on medication.
  7. Pay attention to your bodies reactions and see if a particular herb, formula, or dosing style resonates with you. Discontinue the herb if you are having a bad reaction or think you may be. Having a break allows you to work out what is going on. Although the herbs listed on this site are usually far milder in side effects than drugs, these may happen and it is good to be cautious and use common sense. Also, watch for signs of constitutional misbalance, e.g. dry skin and reformulate accordingly, e.g. with a moistening herb, or change herb/ formula. Don’t just carry on if your having a bad reaction and assume it is a ‘healing crisis’.
  8. Choose specific medicine for the condition. There are different ways of doing this, however, you could consider; 1) the constitution, i.e. pitta, vata, or kapha, 2) the tissue state (warm, cold, dry, wet, tense, relaxed), 3) systems, 4) herbal actions, and, 5) herbal energetics.
  9. Either the single herb approach (what is called simpling) or using a more complex formula are both valid approaches. See what you are comfortable with, for example, the Eclectics tended to use between 1-3 herbs. I usually use between 2-6 herbs at a time. To begin with, perhaps it is best to start with just 1 or 2. I am really not convinced it is necessary to use more than about 5-6 herbs at any one time. Like dosing, again, more isn’t always better.
  10. Fresh or recently dried tinctures are often preferred as they are usually stronger. Good quality liquid tinctures made from whole leaves, flowers, roots, etc is generally preferred to dried capsules and standardised extracts. This way a formula can be constructed easily in one bottle. Form and quality of the herbs are really important. Find trusted suppliers.
  11. Herbal medicines may take some time to work so be patient. Herbs can be divided into slow and fast acting, to improve chronic conditions, the slow acting tonics are usually best. 6-8 weeks is a good amount of time to wait to evaluate the efficiency of a formula or single herb.
  12. Take notes of the date you start a herb and the dose. Then allow a suitable amount of time.
  13. Dosage is dependent on the individual. For example, young people (under 16) or old people (over 65) require less of a herb, so be very cautious with these people especially.
  14. The adaptogen herbs can over stimulate and mask underlying causes of fatigue like diet or lifestyle problems. I recommend if you are considering using adaptogen herbs your self or applying them to others to first read this PDF. It may be best to start with smaller doses and watch carefully for signs of over stimulation and constitutional imbalance (e.g. dryness or overheating). They each have their own specific indications and contraindications.
  15. For some herbs it may be better to have breaks and cycle. Having a break may allow your body to rest and reset itself before continuing. Some herbs may work better this way.
  16. Don’t expect miracles from herbs and don’t assume them to be side effect free. 
  17. If taking herbs and drugs do not take them at the same time, leave a gap.
  18. Inform your doctor of any herbs you are planning to take before you take them, especially if you have a pre-existing health problem.