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To prevent problems when selling or using herbs:
1. Be certain you have the correct plant.
2. Use simples.
3. Understand that different preparations of the same herb can work differently.
4. Use nourishing, tonifying, stimulating, and potentially poisonous herbs wisely.
BE CERTAIN YOU HAVE THE CORRECT PLANT
One of the easiest ways to get into trouble with an herb is to use the “wrong” one. How could that happen? Common names for herbs overlap, causing confusion as to the proper identity. Herbs that are labeled correctly may contain extraneous material from another, more dangerous, herb. Herbs may be picked at the wrong stage of growth or handled incorrectly after harvesting, causing them to develop detrimental qualities.
Protect yourself and your customers with these simple steps:
A simple is one herb. For optimum safety, I prepare, buy, sell, teach about and use herbal simples, that is: preparations containing only one herb. (Occasionally I will add some mint to flavor a remedy.)
The more herbs there are in a formula, the more likelihood there is of unwanted side-effects. Understandably, the public seeks combinations, hoping to get more for less. And many mistakenly believe that herbs must be used together to be effective (probably because potentially poisonous herbs are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate the damage they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties, such as goldenseal and echinacea, is counter-productive and more likely to cause trouble than a simple. A simple tincture of echinacea is more effective than any combination and much safer.
Different people have different reactions to substances, whether drugs, foods, or herbs. When herbs are mixed together in a formula and someone taking it has distressing side effects, there is no way to determine which herb is the cause. With simples, it’s easy to tell which herb is doing what. If there’s an adverse reaction, other herbs with similar properties can be tried. Limiting the number of herbs used in any one day (to no more than four) offers added protection.
Side effects from herbs are less common than side effects from drugs and usually less severe. If an herb disturbs the digestion, it may be that the body is learning to process it. Give it a few more tries before giving up. Stop taking any herb that causes nausea, dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, headache, or blurred vision. (These effects will generally occur quite quickly.) Slippery elm is an excellent antidote to any type of poison.
If you are allergic to any foods or medicines, it is especially important to consult resources that list the side effects of herbs before you use them.
UNDERSTAND THAT DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS OF THE SAME HERB CAN WORK DIFFERENTLY
The safety of any herbal remedy is dependent on the way it is prepared and used.
USE NOURISHING, TONIFYING, STIMULATING, & POTENTIALLY POISONOUS HERBS WISELY
Herbs comprise a group of several thousand plants with widely varying actions. Some are nourishers, some tonifiers, some stimulants and sedatives, and some are potential poisons. To use them wisely and well, we need to understand each category, its uses, best manner of preparation, and usual dosage range.
Nourishing herbs are the safest of all herbs; side effects are rare. Nourishing herbs are taken in any quantity for any length of time. They are used as foods, just like spinach and kale. Nourishing herbs provide high levels of proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes, and essential fatty acids.
Examples of nourishing herbs are: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula flowers, chickweed, comfrey leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, flax seeds, honeysuckle flowers, lamb’s quarter, marshmallow, nettles, oatstraw, plantain (leaves/seeds), purslane, red clover blossoms, seaweed, Siberian ginseng, slippery elm, violet leaves, and wild mushrooms.
Tonifying herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative, rather than immediate, effect. They build the functional ability of an organ (like the liver) or a system (like the immune system). Tonifying herbs are most beneficial when they are used in small quantities for extended periods of time. The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need to take. Bland tonics may be used in quantity, like nourishing herbs.
Side effects occasionally occur with tonics, but are usually quite short-term. Many older herbalists mistakenly equated stimulating herbs with tonifying herbs, leading to widespread misuse of many herbs, and severe side effects.
Examples of tonifying herbs are: barberry bark, burdock root/seeds, chaste tree, crone(mug)wort, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane, fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail, lady’s mantle, lemon balm, milk thistle seeds, motherwort, mullein, pau d’arco, raspberry leaves, schisandra berries, St. Joan’s wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild yam, and yellow dock.
Sedating and stimulating herbs cause a variety of rapid reactions, some of which may be unwanted. Some parts of the person may be stressed in order to help other parts. Strong sedatives and stimulants, whether herbs or drugs, push us outside our normal ranges of activity and may cause strong side effects. If we rely on them and then try to function without them, we wind up more agitated (or depressed) than before we began. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants – whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee – leads to loss of tone, impairment of functioning, and even physical dependency. The stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose needs to be, and the shorter the duration of its use.
Herbs that tonify and nourish while sedating/stimulating are some of my favorite herbs. I use them freely, as they do not cause dependency. Sedating/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish: boneset, catnip, citrus peel, cleavers, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, motherwort, oatstraw, passion flower, peppermint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.
Strongly sedating/stimulating herbs include: angelica, black pepper, blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, licorice, opium poppy, osha root, shepherd’s purse, sweet woodruff, turkey rhubarb root, uva ursu leaves, valerian root, wild lettuce sap, willow bark, and wintergreen leaves.
Potentially poisonous herbs are intense, potent medicines that are taken in tiny amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects are common.
Examples of potentially poisonous herbs are: belladonna, blood-root, celandine, chaparral, foxglove, goldenseal, henbane, iris root, Jimson weed, lobelia, May apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, poke root, poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey corn root, wild cucumber root.
In addition, consider these thoughts on using herbs safely:
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