Are herbs safe to take?

There are agencies around the world which monitor the safety of taking herbal medicines. Although reporting mechanisms are not perfect the general view of those who know the evidence best is that risks are very low. For example the World Health Organisation International Centre for International Drug Monitoring in Uppsala, Sweden receives millions of adverse drug reports from monitors in most countries around the world. These include around 1% herb-related reports. Their director has concluded from looking at these that the hazard level is low and that risks relate mainly to adulteration and substitution of products in a poorly regulated international market.

The most serious reports otherwise are usually cited as ‘idiosyncratic’ events that by definition are rare and unpredictable. The remedies we refer to on this site have particularly good safety records. However to be prudent you should take the following advice if you want to treat yourself with herbs.

1)     Avoid herbal self medication …

  • when taking powerful prescription drugs (especially those for blood clotting, heart failure, diabetes, epilepsy, severe depression and psychosis, AIDs, and after transplant surgery),
  • with kidney failure or liver disease
  • within 48 hours of admission to hospital.

2)     Pause herbal remedies whenever you notice an unpleasant reaction. The main effect of many herbs is on the digestion and this is where uncomfortable effects can occasionally occur. Fortunately these effects are mostly temporary symptoms, that may include like nausea, dyspepsia or diarrhoea. Headaches and drowsiness or increased urinary flow may also be experienced. Again these are mostly passing symptoms and may be reduced by taking herbs after food rather than before, taking in more water or at a lower starting dose. However the obvious point is – if you feel uncomfortable stop – and maybe seek help from a qualified practitioner who works with herbs.

3)     Do not take herbal remedies longer than you need them. For most cases this may be no more than a few weeks. In cases where benefits are unlikely to show for much longer it would be wise to seek advice from a qualified practitioner who works with herbs.

4)     Above all choose your herbs wisely! The international market for herbal remedies is largely unregulated. People really are not watching what you buy much of the time! There are too many cases where the product does not match up to the label or even that the label is not clear and some rare but bad cases where this has harmed people. We will be helping you find reliable herbs on this site. If you live in or can get supplies from Europe or Australia or Canada you can get independently verified herbal products. In Europe there are registered or licensed herbal medicines and on this site we list those on the market for each condition (in the UK initially). In Australia herbal remedies should be registered under the Therapeutic Goods Act, and Health Canada licenses herbs as Natural Health Products. New Zealand is planning similar legislation. In other places you have to look diligently at the quality of product.

If you do not have access to independently regulated herbs then choose from companies with strong reputations, who share this with leading retail outlets on the high street. Avoid internet or hole-in-the wall outlets – these are particularly likely to sell inferior products.