For thousands of years, herbs have been both as medicines and for magick. Even though our modern pharmaceuticals have supplanted some of the traditional uses of herbs, 80% of the world population continues to use herbs as their primary means of medical treatment. For thousands of years traditional herbalists, healers, root doctors, shamans, and medicine men and women have passed on a rich tradition of medical knowledge. When herbs are used therapeutically within the context of a cultural healing tradition, they are used safely. But when the use of herbs becomes separated from their cultural and historical context they can be misused. For that reason, I found it very important to cover some of the basics of using Herbs Safely!
In most Pagan traditions there is a general rule of "Harm None" although the wording changes from path to path. Medical professionals are also bound by a similar rule, the "Hippocratic" oath of Primum non nocere ("First do no harm"). Because of this, whether you are working as in either a medicinal or spiritual capacity, no treatment should be administered which causes harm. In general, you'll find that herbal medicines offer a wider range of safety than do pharmaceuticals, and they do less harm.
This situation presents a healthy challenge to modern homeopathic medicine, and should serve to stimulate more research on the healing properties of herbs. Regardless of what type of healing tradition is used, it is better to give no medication at all than to use medication indiscriminately.
For best results, all healing methodologies need to be integrated within a holistic context which includes a nutritional diet, adequate rest, regular exercise, a positive outlook on life, fulfilling work, and a non-stressful lifestyle. Often paying attention to these basics is sufficient to bring about healing without having to resort to other methods.
Doctors still have Doctors, and although it may seem easier to simply diagnose yourself, it's just as easy to misdiagnose yourself. Diagnosis is a science and an art, and even if you are a skilled diagnostician, it is not possible to be completely objective when diagnosing one’s self. For this reason, if you attempt self-diagnosis discuss your ideas with a qualified health professional or other skilled holistic healer before you proceed with treatment.
Side effects and allergic conditions
All medicinal herbs (and even foods) have side effects to some degree. The side effects depend on dosage, individual physiology, age, sex, temperament, illness, or pregnancy. Each persons body is different and it is possible for anyone to respond in atypical fashion in response to treatment. One advantage of using herbs for treatment is that there tends to be fewer negative responses compared to treatment with pharmaceuticals. Properly used, herbs should be free of side effects within the window of healing, and the person’s constitution should be supported by the action of the herbs.
When taking herbal supplements, keep good records, listen to your body, and if you experience any unusual or unpleasant reaction, stop taking the herb. The first time you take an herb, use only a small amount so that you can be sure that there is no immediate adverse reaction. Use this rule even when starting to take herbs which you have taken in the past. Our bodies can develop allergies at any point in our lives even without showing any general health changes. It's also not a bad idea to alert friends or family that you are starting a new herbal supplement, in the case of a negative or unusual reaction they need to know what you are taking.
When using herbs for an extended period of time, it may be advisable to discontinue use of the herb for a few weeks, from time to time. This is to allow you to determine whether you still need the herb, or perhaps to keep the herb from becoming ineffective.
Most people are aware that drugs may interact with each other, or with certain foods in the diet. Such interactions may cause the drug to be ineffective or could produce an adverse side effect. The same principle applies to herbs. There are numerous examples of how herbs mixing herbs or not following a proper diet can end badly. If you are taking prescription drugs, you should consult with a knowledgeable pharmacist or herbalist before using herbs for medication. It's also very important to make sure that you ask about possible food interactions and are always open and honest. Hiding things such as birth-control, smoking, drinking or street drug usage can be deadly! If you are in the position of giving advice about herbs, make sure you know all the interactions of the herb as well as the lifestyle and medications of the person needing help!
Timing, frequency, and duration of doses
In standard drug treatment, one is usually taking a single chemical compound which has a certain half-life in the body. The half-life is the time period it takes for half of the drug to be eliminated from the body. In herb treatment, one is using extracts of plants that contain hundreds or thousands of ingredients, many of which are phenomenologically active with different half-lives. The therapeutic effects of herbs are often multifaceted. In the words of herbalist David Hoffmann, "the nutritional matrix of plant biochemistry profoundly modifies the activities of specific chemicals." Some of the ingredients of an herbal preparation may have specific targeting effects on biochemical processes. Other chemicals may enhance or potentate the actions of other herbal components, while still other chemicals may have synergistic and nutritive effects. Always pay attention to the recommended dosage. Do not subscribe to the "more is better" viewpoint. Higher than recommended doses could produce adverse or paradoxical effects. Because of their nutritive and supporting nature, many herbs may take a few days to a few weeks for the desired effect to be achieved. When herbs are used for chronic conditions, it is better to take them in small doses over an extended period of time. As a general rule, dosage should be related to body weight. Large people require larger doses than small people.
Dosage for children
There are no absolute guidelines for administering herbal medicines for children, but there are some recommendations and rules. Note that some herbs such as comfrey root, poke, may-apple, and Ma Huang, should not be used with young children. There are at least three different methods for determining children’s dosage.
Clark’s Rule: Divide the child’s weight (in pounds) by 150. This gives the approximate fraction of the adult dose. For example for a 50 lb. child, the suggested dose is 1/3 of the adult dose.
Cowling’s Rule: Divide the child’s age (in years) at the next birthday by 24. For example, a seven year child will be eight on his or her next birthday. To calculate the dose, divide 8 by 24 which equals 8/24, or 1/3 the adult dose.
Young’s Rule: Divide the child’s age (in years) by a factor of 12 plus the age. For example, for a child of 9 years, divide 9 by (12 + 6) which equals 9/18 or 1/2 the adult dose.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding
There are quite a few herbs that are contraindicated during pregnancy. According to herbalist Deb Soule, the following herbs should not be taken during pregnancy. These include barberry root, cascara sagrada, feverfew, juniper berry, mugwort, pennyroyal, poke, rue, senna, southernwood, tansy, thuja, and wormwood. Dr. James Duke would add balsam pear, chervil, Chinese angelica, hernandia, hyptis, may-apple, and mountain mint. The absence of other herbs on this list does not imply that they are safe to use during pregnancy. Some of the above herbs should also not be used while breast-feeding. Again, check with a qualified health professional before using herbs during pregnancy or breast-feeding.