Before I start, let me say first that you have to educate yourself before you make a change that effects your health. You can find millions of blogs and articles on the internet written about how and when to use herbs. I will tell you the same thing that I'm constantly trying to teach my children: Anyone can write an article on the internet. You have to pick your sources very carefully and make sure they are reliable. Even if you are going to the doctor for a specific condition, research it first and understand the possibilities, terminology, and things to avoid so you can be an active member in the decisions regarding your wellness. I promise, you have the most to gain and the most to lose. Ok, let's start.
One of the biggest fears I've experienced with herbs has to do with toxicity and fear about poisoning oneself. There really isn't a simple response to this fear. The first thing I have to say is, while precautions must be taken to use herbs safely, they are still not prescription drugs (PD's) and shouldn't be used or feared as if they were. There are estimated to be 36,000 deaths per year caused by PD's used in the correct dosages, and 44,000 deaths caused by mistakes. PD's have a much stronger effect in the body than herbs. And you'll often find an herbalist is more concerned with what PD's you are taking than the toxicity of an herb alone. This is because small changes that an herb may induce can have a much stronger effect on the action of the PD. But an herb alone can usually be used with beneficial results with only a mild concern of toxicity if you are taking the right precautions. If you are using any PD's, always consult your physician before taking supplements and inform them of your plan.
At the same time, while incidents of herb-induced deaths are nearly non-existent, you can certainly make yourself ill, your condition worse, set your healing response back, or put yourself in a position where you do require medical attention and PD's to return to normal. The reports of herb-related death may be non-existent, but a responsible and informed approach is a must in order to benefit from herbs and not cause yourself more trouble than you start out with. Here are a few steps to take before using natural remedies to increase the benefit and lower the chance of toxicity or negative reactions.
1. Educate Yourself First
You'll want to approach the use of herbs with more than just having heard of their possible benefits. So gather as much information as you can using reliable sources. The most important is, what are your concerns and what results do you want to see? Then make a list of all your medications, supplements, diagnoses, and allergies. Only then move on to researching herbs or natural remedies that are known to benefit your specific needs.
2. Know Your Herbs
There are few things you'll need to know about your herbs before you begin using them. You can't learn too much about an herb. Understand where it comes from, how and for what it was traditionally used, a more modern, science-based understanding of how it works in your body, and what are the contraindications -- situations they should NOT be used. Then compare what you've learned to the list you wrote from step 1 and see if this is a safe herb for you.
3. Source Your Herbs
Not all herbs are created equal. Find a reliable source for your herbs. I never recommend going to the local grocery store or pharmacy for herbal supplements. I'm not saying they're all bad, just that many don't contain what they claim or they contain extra things I don't want or need. I'm a whole-food kind of guy myself so I prefer to use the herbs in their natural whole-food state anyway. I'm not a strong supporter of reductionism where they isolate specific compounds from herbs or foods. I think what makes these herbs & foods work in our bodies is how they're combined and balanced with other constituents of the herb or food. But these are the types of things you need to research and decide for yourself. Don't just take my word for it. Even though I say in general that I don't support them, there are still a few here and there that even I would use occasionally myself. Just make sure you can trust the source of your herbal remedies.
4. Start Slow
As I mentioned before, herbal remedies will not act like PDs. So don't take them with an unrealistic expectation that they will. PDs act by forcing the body to react in a certain and often very specific way. It usually does this with complete disregard for the balance of the rest of your system, which is where side effects usually become significant. Don't get me wrong -- while my desire is for us to reduce the irresponsible over-use of PDs, I have no illusion that they have no place in our healing. They have their uses and benefits and should certainly be used...at the right place and time.
Herbs on the other hand are usually gentler in their action. They stimulate the body's natural responses and actions to promote a certain result. Always start with low doses and pay close attention to how you are responding to it. Slowly increase the dose until you reach the recommended dosage. Some herbs may act pretty quickly, like Nettle Leaf. Others take a week, several weeks, or sometimes up to a couple of months to show results. Chaste Berry (Vitex) takes up to three months to show results. This may seem long, but I assure you it's very much worth the wait.
We're also watching for Allergic reactions when starting slow but it's worth mentioning on its own. We're watching for this with the low dose while paying close attention to our response. But if you're still concerned, then I often recommend rubbing just a bit of the herb on your gums and waiting to see if there is a reaction. These tissues are very sensitive and a reaction will often show pretty quickly if you are allergic to it. If nothing happens, then proceed to use the herb. But don't skip the "Start Slow" step just because nothing happened.
5. Always Cycle
I always recommend cycling on and off of the herbs. If you have an herbalist, which you should always start with, they will most likely give you several options for cycles. Some examples are 3 days on and 1 day off, 1 week on and 1 week off, 1 month on and 1 week off. It really depends on the herb, your lifestyle, and the goals. But because the herbs are stimulating a response from a gland, organ, system, etc. you'll want to give it a resting period. You can over-stimulate them and drive them to exhaustion which will cause a crash at some point. A good example is Echinacea. This herb doesn't have disease fighting chemicals in it. It works by stimulating your own immune system. You must cycle the use of it or else you can cause the opposite effect you were looking for in the first place. And because we're always exposed to pathogens, if you cause a crash in your immune system...you're definitely going to catch something. And the next thing you're going to say is, "I used Echinacea once and that stuff doesn't work". Don't fall into this trap.
The exception to my explanation would be tonic herbs. They're different than stimulants. Tonics are herbs that the body uses for multiple functions. They're usually used to increase overall wellness throughout the body as the body can apply the nutrients and phytochemicals to balance many different systems. Examples would be Ginseng, Ashwaganda, Rhodiola, and one of my favorites - Astragalus. But either way, cycle them. You want to just support and nudge your body in the right direction and avoid a situation where it relies solely on an external source for proper function.
6. Keep a Log
I recommend this step, but it's really optional. It's a form of statistical process control. Herbs may behave differently based on other lifestyle factors, many of which may be very unique to you. For example: You may give up on an herb that would have benefited you greatly because you didn't have a way to note that it makes you sick or dizzy or constipated whenever you take it...let's say...on Sunday. If you can see clearly that on Saturday, you tend to always have a glass of wine...then you might make a connection that helps you use your herbs in a way that works for you. That's just an example of how a log might help. The possibilities are endless.
To The Point
Using herbs may seem like a lot of work and responsibility. But it's always been that way and is no more than what's reasonable when working for better health. Whether you're seeking a natural/alternative method or going to a doctor for a prescription, the process should always look a little something like what I just described above. These are just a few steps that I recommend. You can discover that you're not so concerned with some of the things I've listed or add a few steps for things you want to watch out for. I always recommend finding an herbalist and walking through these processes with them as a guide. An herbalist wants to teach this to you until you don't need to be walked through and can be a personal herbalist for yourself and your family. After that, you can use the herbalist only occasionally when more challenging issues arise. And as always, feel free to contact me if you have a question during your research. I'm always happy to help.