This week I received a number of emails from worried clients in response to an article which had been published in a well-known national newspaper. The bold headline?
In over 13 years of practice, I’ve seen many similar articles purporting to warn the public of the “dangers” of herbal medicine. With an increasing amount of confusing information available both online and in print, I thought it was about time I responded with a sensible response to the question: “Are herbal medicines safe?”
Are herbal medicines safe?
Statistics show that approximately 80% of the world’s population still rely on plant medicines for their primary source of healthcare. This is a clear indication that herbal medicines must work and be safe, or else the practice would have died out long ago. The problem isn’t with the plants themselves, but when self-prescribed herbal medicines are taken alongside pharmaceutical drugs. In some cases, the potential for unpleasant interactions to take place is certainly a real possibility.
In light of this, perhaps it’s more helpful to ask: “Is it safe to take herbal medicines in conjunction with GP prescribed drugs?”
I think you’ll agree this is an entirely different question; one that both the newspaper article and all practising herbalists should quite rightly be asking.
Herbalists are required to learn about drug, herb and supplement interactions right from the start of their five-year training, and are expected to keep up to date with new pharmaceutical products coming onto the market.
The Pharmaceutical Problem
With a significant percentage of the population regularly taking medications such as beta-blockers and statins, you can understand why this might be a genuine concern. Hundreds of new pharmaceutical drugs are brought to market every year, and as herbal medicines have never been traditionally prescribed alongside powerful drugs, information about potential interactions isn’t well documented.
Furthermore, as many people take more than one prescription drug (often to offset the side-effects of the others) the picture becomes even more confused.
Interactions between herbal medicines and drugs can potentially happen, but this scenario can be completed avoided by seeking the advice of an experienced herbal practitioner. Unfortunately, most people’s first point of call is not their local herbalist but “Doctor Google.”
One of the first questions you’ll find on my client health questionnaire is “Are you currently taking any GP prescribed medication or any over the counter supplements?”
When issues do arise, it’s usually herbal medicines (and not the pharmaceuticals) which become the scapegoat. The familiar cries of “ban X herb!” and “regulate labelling!” are once more touted by the media, often with the support of the large drug companies who want to harness the medicinal properties of these humble plants, but are unable to make money from them in their natural form.
This is a dangerous situation which leads to very real consequences:
- Over the past few years, a number of valuable herbal medicines have been withdrawn from the Materia medica. These include plants such as Coltsfoot, Borage, Comfrey, and Kava Kava. Other herbs such as St. John’s Wort and Echinacea have also come under the spotlight.
- Due to advertising regulations, herbalists are no longer able to make claims about plant medicines they have skilfully used for years. Not being able to provide clear information about the product on the label only serves to add to public confusion and increases the likelihood of consumers purchasing unsuitable products.
The Safety Record of Herbal Medicines
Herbal medications are quite safe for the majority of people to take as a form of preventative medicine and to support general wellbeing. However, in some instances herbs can interact with GP prescribed drugs, either by “doubling up the effect” (i.e. both the drug and the herb are doing the same thing, thereby potentiating the effect,) or working to support the organs of elimination such as the liver and bowels, thereby mobilising GP prescribed medications out of the body more quickly than intended. This can be potentially dangerous for very ill or vulnerable patients.
The message is put very succinctly on the NHS website:
The solution to the problem of herb-drug interactions can easily be avoided by seeking the advice of an experienced herbalist. Their training will ensure you receive the best possible advice about the herbs and supplements that are right for you, but most of all it will keep you safe.
Resources and further reading:
Information about the training standards expected of registered herbal practitioners can be found here:
Information about the benefits of seeing a herbal practitioner can be found here:
A discussion of how herbs work, and the pitfalls of self-prescribing herbal medicines can be found here:
Why herbal medicine doesn’t work