Herbs Simply and Safely
an article by Susun S. Weed
herbs 'dilute forms of drugs'- and therefore dangerous?
Or are they 'natural'- and therefore safe? If you
sell herbs, you probably hear these questions often.
What is the 'right' answer? It depends on the herb!
These thoughts on herbs will help you explain to
your customers (and yourself) how safe - or dangerous
- any herb might be.
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
Protect yourself and your customers with these simple
* Buy herbs only from reputable suppliers.
* Only buy herbs that are labeled with their botanical
name. Botanical names are specific, but the same
common names can refer to several different plants.
'Marigold' can be Calendula officinalis, a medicinal
herb, or Tagetes, an annual used as a bedding plant.
* If you grow the herbs you sell, be meticulous
about keeping different plants separate when you
harvest and dry them, and obsessive about labeling.
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
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.)Ê 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.
THAT DIFFERENT PREPARATIONS OF THE SAME HERB CAN
The safety of any herbal remedy is dependent on
the way it is prepared and used.
* Tinctures and extracts contain the alkaloids,
or poisonous, parts of plants and need to be used
with care and wisdom. Tinctures are as safe as the
herb involved (see cautions below for tonifying,
stimulating, sedating, or potentially poisonous
herbs). Best used/sold as simples, not combinations,
especially when strong herbs are being used.
* Dried herbs made into teas or infusions contain
the nourishing aspects of the plants and are usually
quite safe, especially when nourishing or tonifying
herbs are used.
* Dried herbs in capsules are generally the least
effective way to use herbs. They are poorly digested,
poorly utilized, often stale or ineffective, and
* Infused herbal oils are available as is, or thickened
into ointments. They are much safer than essential
oils, which are highly concentrated and can be lethal
if taken internally.
* Herbal vinegars are not only decorative but mineral-rich
as well. A good medium for nourishing and tonifying
herbs; not as strong as tinctures for stimulants/sedatives.
* Herbal glycerins are available for those who prefer
to avoid alcohol but are usually weaker in action
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
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
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
In addition, consider these thoughts on using herbs
* Respect the power of plants to change the body
and spirit in dramatic ways.
* Increase trust in the healing effectiveness of
plants by trying remedies for minor or external
problems before, or while, working with major and
* Develop ongoing relationships with knowledgeable
healers - in person or in books - who are interested
in herbal medicine.
* Honor the uniqueness of every plant, every person,
* Remember that each person becomes whole and healed
in their own unique way, at their own speed. People,
plants, and animals can help in this process. But
it is the body/spirit that does the healing.
expect plants to be cure alls.
PO Box 64
Susun Weed at: www.susunweed.com and www.ashtreepublishing.com
For permission to reprint this article, contact
and involved, Susun Weed has garnered an international
reputation for her groundbreaking lectures, teachings,
and writings on health and nutrition. She challenges
conventional medical approaches with humor, insight,
and her vast encyclopedic knowledge of herbal medicine.
Unabashedly pro-woman, her animated and enthusiastic
lectures are engaging and often profoundly provocative.
Susun is one
of America's best-known authorities on herbal medicine
and natural approaches to women's health. Her four
best-selling books are recommended by expert herbalists
and well-known physicians and are used and cherished
by millions of women around the world. Learn more
article is © copyright Susun
S. Weed 2004 - Republished here with kind permission.
Disclaimer: This content is not intended
to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions
made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose,
treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or
symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided
by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare
practitioner with a specific formula for you. All
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