Herbal products can work wonders, but sometimes the products on the shelf are overpriced, ineffective or even unsafe.
By Jill Richardson / AlterNet
You’re not feeling well, so you head to the grocery store for some herbal tea. Or perhaps you pass a booth at your farmers’ market, full of herbal concoctions to cure every ill. Thanks to a 1994 law known as DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act), herbal products cannot promise to actually cure you of anything. Rather, they offer to support or promote a specific body part or function.
To most of us, it’s all the same, whether a tea, tincture or capsule promises to help cure our cold or “support upper respiratory health and immune function.” You see the promise, you buy the product, but does it work? Did you get ripped off?
First off, herbs can and do work. If herbs were entirely ineffectual at altering our body state, then marijuana would not be illegal and nobody would ever put aloe on sunburns. The questions for someone seeking to use herbs are, which herb to use, how much and how frequently to use them, which form to use them in, and how much to pay for them. Answer those questions correctly and you might be pleasantly surprised at the medicine cabinet you never knew was growing in your front yard. (In fact, you might have called those herbal remedies weeds.)
Although they can work wonders, herbal products are not regulated like drugs. Manufacturers do not need to prove that chamomile tea is better at relieving anxiety or improving digestion than a placebo. Most of the time, that’s okay. Humans have used herbs for millennia and we don’t need the FDA’s blessing to know that ginger is good for nausea or lavender helps you relax. But sometimes, the products on the shelf are overpriced, ineffective, or even unsafe.
If you buy herbal products from the store, the best-case scenario is probably that you get a product that helps you feel better but you pay too much for it. A box of 16 teabags can run you $5 or more. In most cases, you can probably buy loose herbs online or at a local herb store, blend them together, and make the same amount of tea for less than a dollar. (Many herbalists swear by Mountain Rose Herbs for organic, fresh, and fairly priced supplies.)
The downside to blending your own tea is that you might end up with far more than you need. Even if you pay less per cup of tea, you might pay as much or more overall than you would have by just getting a package of teabags at the store. You also need a basic amount of knowledge about the herbs you select, like what they do and whether or not they are safe for you. (Some herbs are not recommended for children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, or people with certain medical conditions.)
On the other hand, when you buy herbs or harvest them yourself, you know that they are fresh. Who knows how long that box of tea has been sitting on store shelves or in a warehouse before that?
That said, herbal products at the store that are effective and yet overpriced (and maybe not so fresh) are typically the best-case scenario. Alarmingly often, herbal products are shoddy or even questionably safe. Here are a few pitfalls to look out for.
1. The herb is sold in the wrong form. Herbal medicine comes in many forms. Infusions, which are like strong teas, are perhaps the most common. Herbalists differ in their instructions for infusions, but often they say to pour one cup of water “just off the boil” over one teaspoon of herbs and steep, covered, for 20 minutes. (If you buy herbal tea from the store and you’re hoping it will provide some medicinal benefits, don’t just steep in hot water for a few minutes. Bring the water to a boil and steep the herbs for at least 20 minutes.) But there are also tinctures (made by combining herb with alcohol for several weeks and then straining out the herbs), essential oils, topical products like compresses, salves, and poultices, and more.
Sometimes an herb might be equally beneficial in several different forms. But sometimes it isn’t. For example, milk thistle has potent detox powers. When an unlucky patient ingests a death cap mushroom, a chemical extracted from milk thistle called silymarin can save them. Here’s the catch: silymarin is not water-soluble. You can sprinkle ground milk thistle in your food or you can use a milk thistle tincture if you want to use it for detox, but it won’t do you much good in a tea. Of course, that does not stop anyone from selling detox teas made with milk thistle.
2. The dosage is wrong.How much cramp bark do you need to alleviate your cramps? And how much is actually in that product you bought? Wonderfully named cramp bark does not come cheap. A penny-pinching manufacturer of herbal products might try to save money by using only a tiny bit of more expensive herbs like this one and combining them with other, cheaper herbs. After all, they can still say that the product contains “cramp bark” on the label, right? You just don’t know how much.
3. An extract of the active chemical isn’t the same as the entire plant.Taking a pill or capsule is a lot more convenient than making an infusion. But what on earth is actually in those capsules? Is it the whole herb that you wish to take or is it just an individual chemical that is seen as the active ingredient? If the active ingredient alone does the trick for you, great. But if humankind has used an herb for generations to help with a certain health condition, then maybe you’re best sticking to the actual herb. That way, you’ll gain the benefits of all of the chemicals in the plant – not just the one or two that scientists have identified so far.
If convenience is what you’re after, consider trying tinctures (or glycerites, tinctures made from glycerine instead of alcohol, if the alcohol is a problem). When you can’t sleep at 3am you probably don’t want to walk to the kitchen, boil some water, and then wait 20 minutes for your infusion to steep. It’s much easier to keep a tincture bottle on your nightstand so you can take a few drops of valerian, hops, lemon balm, or whatever sleep aid you find most useful without getting out of bed.
4. The herbs aren’t safe—or aren’t safe for you. Some herbs are safe for everyone, always. But some aren’t. As WebMD notes, catnip tea is safe to give your kiddo, but tread carefully if you want to try St. John’s wort. While St. John’s wort gained popularity as a natural antidepressant, it interferes with some prescription drugs.
While most ingredients in products found on store shelves are generally safe, it’s best to do a bit of homework beforehand, especially if you plan to give them to a child or take them while pregnant or breastfeeding. A few herbs out there can cause devastating consequences like inducing labor (blue cohosh) or causing a woman to stop lactating (sage).
Additionally, if you take prescription drugs or suffer from a health condition, it is wise to check with your doctor before trying a new herb. Most of the time, it’s probably safe, but it’s still worth it to make sure instead of taking a risk. Herbal products cannot be relied upon to always make it clear on the label if they are unsafe for any children, pregnant women, or people with certain health conditions.
Some products contain substances that are only safe for short-term use or perhaps not even safe at all. Popular laxative teas often contain senna leaf or cascara sagrada. Herbalists caution against use of these potent herbs as they might be harmful or habit-forming. Rosemary Gladstar, author of many books on herbalism, advises readers to use other methods of relieving constipation, including exercise, healthy diet, drinking more water, and eating ground psyllium seed and flax seed. She recommends yellow dock as a safe and non-habit-forming herb to help keep you regular.
Other herbs are considered safe for short-term use but not recommended over the long term, like licorice root. Licorice root is a tasty way to help sore throats and digestive complaints, but it is considered possibly unsafe to use for more than a few weeks—and definitely unsafe if you are pregnant.
And then there are herbs in the “not safe to ingest at all” category. Often this is contentious, since some people claim that an herb is perfectly safe and others say it isn’t. For example, some say comfrey is unsafe for internal use because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PAs, that cause liver damage. Others insist that humans used comfrey internally for centuries and, therefore, it’s fine in moderation. (Either way, it’s generally agreed that comfrey is fine to use externally and it’s great for your skin.)
So which is it? Safe or unsafe? Often, with herbs, the question remains unresolved. However, usually there are several herbs to aid with each ailment you’ve got. Why choose a controversial herb when unquestionably safe ones exist? Before buying or using any herbal product, it pays to look up any unfamiliar ingredients online to make sure they are all safe.
With so much variation in quality and even safety among herbal products, you might decide to just go ahead and make your own. By doing so, you can create infusions, salves, and more that are exactly right for you. It feels very powerful when you use your newfound knowledge to help get over a cold quickly or relieve a nasty headache for the first time. Fortunately, many herbalists like Rosalee de la Foretand Aviva Rommoffer their wisdom for free online. Romm is an MD as well as an herbalist, so she is great at helping with another safety issue: knowing when it’s time to quit trying to heal yourself with herbs and go to the doctor instead.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..