One appropriate concern for when you’re considering herbal medicine is whether it is generally safe to take herbs, and what you might expect for side effects. After all, Western drug commercials give a long list of possible side effects of taking the drug. Won’t herbs be the same?
The answer is maybe. Western drugs are based on the idea that you should take one substance for one effect, but herbal medicine is not prescribed like this. An herbalist will look at your entire health history and use that as a basis for writing a formula containing multiple herbs. One of the reasons multiple herbs are used is because some herbs neutralize unwanted effects from others. So from an herbalist’s perspective, a side effect when taking a formula means that the herbalist has missed something in the health history or didn’t portion out the ingredients correctly.
So what happens if the herbalist gets something wrong? Many herbs are hard to digest, so the most common side effect is a change in bowel movement frequency or consistency. Many other formulas contain herbal stimulants or sedatives, so your energy levels might feel a little different than normal, or sleeping patterns altered. If your herbalist expects any stronger side effects then those, they should tell you before you start taking the formula. And of course if you experience anything you think is a side effect, you should let your herbalist know. They will adjust your dose or tell you to throw out your current formula and give you a new one.
One additional question about safety that’s worth addressing is knowing where your herbs come from, and whether or not they are safe to ingest in the first place. Luckily, herb suppliers go to an extraordinary amount of work to make sure that what they are selling are the actual herbs and not some similar but incorrect species. Good suppliers also test their herbs for different levels of heavy metals, or source their herbs from organic farmers to ensure a quality product. Each company tends to work slightly different here, so it’s a good idea to ask your herbalist about this – specifically questions like:
- What company do you get your herbs from, and where is it located?
- What kind of testing does this company do on their herbs? Do they check for heavy metals or pesticide levels? Are the herbs organic?
- What kind of processing is done on their herbs before selling them?
If you’re getting the idea that a knowledgeable and skilled herbalist is the best defense against problems taking herbs, then you are correct. Herbs are absolutely safe when in the correct hands. Choose yours with care.