How to Use Herbal Preparations Safely
Building Health By Dale Peterson, MDI
I recently learned that July is Herbal / Prescription Interaction Awareness Month. Its purpose is to alert people to the fact that many herbal preparations can affect the action of prescription drugs and conversely, that prescription drugs may pose an increased hazard if added to an herbal regimen.
Herbal/drug interactions pose a special challenge because few physicians understand the actions of herbal substances and are therefore reluctant to discuss herbal remedies with their patients. If a patient mentions that he or she is taking an herbal support the physician will almost always tell the individual to stop taking it rather than attempt to determine how it will affect the drugs being prescribed or whether it is an appropriate alternative to a pharmaceutical agent.
While I use and recommend herbal remedies when necessary, I do not consider them basic to good health. I do not view them as essential to well-being in the manner I view vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids and similar nutrients. I approach herbal formulations with respect, recognizing that in many instances I am using them to address symptoms rather than to correct underlying causes of disease. When possible, I discontinue herbal remedies when health has been restored.
Herbal remedies have been used in China and India for millennia. Traditional Chinese herbalists divide herbs into three categories: superior herbs, inferior herbs, and messenger herbs.
Given our penchant for medications capable of providing rapid symptomatic relief, many in the United States might expect “superior” herbs to be the most potent in dealing with a particular health challenge. This is not the case, however. Chinese herbalists define superior herbs as substances that have little or no potential to cause adverse effects and are safe for long-term consumption. Garlic, cinnamon, ginger, reishi, and Siberian ginseng are examples of a superior herb. Traditional Chinese herbal formulations are dominated by superior herbs.
Inferior herbs, on the other hand, are substances that are capable of conferring specific benefits, but which also have the potential to cause harm. St. John’s wort is an example of an inferior herb. While St. John’s wort has been used for centuries to treat depression and has been demonstrated to be beneficial in helping the body overcome viral infections it can cause side effects such as dry mouth, dizziness, diarrhea, nausea, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and fatigue. Skilled practitioners use inferior herbs sparingly.
Traditional Chinese herbalists rarely prescribe single herbs. They use combinations of herbs that are formulated to work synergistically to obtain the desired result. Messenger herbs are substances that tell the body how to respond to a particular blend. A knowledgeable herbalist can change the action of a formulation simply by changing the messenger herb while the blend of superior and inferior herbs remains the same.
When a single herb is used to address a health challenge it often must be taken at a dosage that causes adverse effects. Herbal combinations that are formulated with emphasis on superior herbs, selective use of inferior herbs, and with a clear understanding of the interaction of the superior, inferior and messenger herbs involved almost always provide greater benefits with a lower incidence of side effects.
Unfortunately, physicians are accustomed to prescribing drugs that consist of a single chemical. Therefore the concept of using a formulation that may contain ten or more substances is foreign to them. Most will take a brief glance at the label and tell their patient to stop taking it immediately.
Herbal preparations and prescription medications can have interactions that are severe and potentially life-threatening. It is therefore important that they not be used in combination unless recommended by someone who is knowledgeable about both products and can determine whether they can safely be used simultaneously. When potentially dangerous interactions are present consideration should be given to using the herbal formulation rather than the drug. Herbs are often as effective as prescription medications in treating health challenges while being less likely to cause adverse effects.
If you wish to use herbs to address health issues it is best to find a practitioner who understands their characteristics and who is able to guide you in their use, especially if you are also taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
Dr. Dale Peterson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Medicine. He completed his residency in FamilyMedicine at the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians. He had a full-time family practice in Edmond, Oklahoma, for over 20 years and was a Chief of Staff of the Edmond Hospital. He was active in teachingfor many years as a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine through the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Peterson left his full-time family practice in 1999 to consult with individuals who are seeking ways to restore and maintain their health through improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes. He founded the Wellness Clubs of America to give people access to credible information on supporting and maintaining their health. His monthly wellness letter, Health by Design, and his Health by Design E-Newsletter provide helpful information to individuals interested in preventing and conquering health challenges. His book Building Health by Design: Adding Life to Your Years and Years to Your Life was released in December 2010.
Dr. Peterson speaks regularly on subjects related to health and nutrition. He hosted a weekly radio program,Your Health Matters, on KTOK in Oklahoma City for five years. For the past nine years he has addressed questions from across the nation on his Your Health Matters weekly teleconference.He offers a free video LifeXtension course at www.drdalepeterson.com.