Using Herbs: Understanding Herbal Safety

Understanding Herbal Safety | GrowingUpHerbal.com | Curious about the safety of using herbs for your family? Here are some answers.

When you’re new to herbs, many things can be intimidating. One of the most uncertain areas for many new herbalists is when it comes to understanding herbal safety.

Today I want to touch on this concern by talking about the safety track records of herbs vs. modern medicines, as well as how to ensure that you’re using herbs as safely as possible for yourself and your family.

Herb Related Deaths vs. Prescription Related Deaths

For the most part, compared to many modern day pharmaceuticals, herbs have a much better safety record. In fact, there are zero deaths attributed to herbs each year. Compare that to over-the-counter and prescription medicines which are responsible for many deaths each year.

In an article from mercola.com, Prescription Drugs Now Kill More People Than Illegal Drugs, Dr. Mercola sites a 2010 report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that revealed the following information about modern medicines, adverse reactions, and death.

  • Records spanning from 1976 to 2006 (the most recent year available) found that, of 62 million death certificates, almost a quarter-million deaths were coded as having occurred in a hospital setting due to medication errors.
  • An estimated 450,000 preventable medication-related adverse events occur in the U.S. every year.
  • Adverse drug reactions cost more than $136 billion annually (more than the total cost of cardiovascular or diabetic care).
  • 1 of 5 hospital patients are injured or killed as a result of an adverse drug reaction.

So does this mean that herbs are totally safe and no problems will come from taking them?

Not exactly.

Herbs are plants, and all plants contain chemicals. It’s these chemicals that give herbs the responses they have in our bodies. These chemicals are very helpful and beneficial as a whole, but they can cause problems or unwanted effects in some situations.

Below is a list of 4 things to keep in mind in order to use herbs safely for yourself and your family.

4 Ways To Make Sure You’re Using Herbs Safely

1. The Best of the Best

Reports have surfaced that reveal many dietary supplements contain poor quality herbs or ingredients that aren’t listed on the label and can be harmful to health. Some of these supplements aren’t even using the herb they claim to use at all but instead are supplementing with something else altogether.

Before you ever put an herbal supplement in or on your body, make sure it’s from high quality herbs (organic, properly harvested and prepared) and from a trusted source. Learn more about choosing quality herbs and trusted sources here.

2. The Rule of “Whole”

Herbs are plants — whole plants. These plants are made up of hundreds of chemicals, and as more research is being done on them, we’re beginning to learn how herbs work and how the medicine they hold work in the body to stimulate certain responses in the body.

Unfortunately the majority of studies done are not on herbs as a whole, but on the individual chemicals that stimulate the desired response in the body. We see how a particular plant chemical causes a particular reaction, and that chemical is then extracted from the plant so it can be sold as a supplement that millions of people can take to help themselves in that particular area.

This my friend is no different than modern medicines. In fact, this is how many modern medicines began.

An example is aspirin. Salicylic acid was found in the bark of the white willow tree and had been used for thousands of years to decrease inflammation, dull pain, and thin the blood. This chemical was extracted and used to create the first aspirin, but in its natural form it was an incredibly bitter white powder that upset the delicate mucous membranes of the mouth and stomach. Over the years, the natural chemical from white willow bark was replaced with a synthetic version that was easier on the body and modern aspirin was formed. (Source)

This method, whether in modern meds or herbal supplements, can cause big problems for our health.

When a plant chemical is extracted and used on its own, it doesn’t have the help of the other chemicals that originally accompanied it to act as buffers. A chemical alone, even of plant origin, can cause unwanted or harmful effects without the buffering chemicals that were originally found with it in the plant.

If you want to use herbs safely it’s best to use the whole plant in your preparations so that all they chemicals accompany each other. This will help to minimize unwanted side effects and interactions with other herbs/meds you may also be taking.

3. Herb-Drug Interactions

For many years herbs have been used alone to aid the body in healing, but in the last century, as modern medicine has become mainstream, we’ve seen that herbs and medicines have the ability to interact with each other.

The Herbal Academy teaches that there are two types interactions that can occur between herbs and drugs. Pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic.

Pharmacodynamic interactions are where the drug and the plant’s active substances DIRECTLY interact. This most commonly happens between herbs and drugs that have the same or opposite effects on the body, and they either work together causing more of the same effect or work against each other.

Pharmacokinetic interactions are where the way we process the herb or drug (uptake, utilization or availability of the drug) is changed. Plants containing tannins, fiber, saponins, resins, and bitters all change the way the body assimilates a drug. For example, a plants high in resins tend to bind to other substances in the gut, decreasing their absorption in the body. They’re also known to coat the lining of the upper digestive tract which also decreases absorption.

4. Herbal Side Effects & Toxicity

Side Effects

Because herbs contain plant chemicals and elicit a response from the body, sometimes they can cause some mild side effects in some people. Although this is rare, it’s not unheard of. Thankfully the most severe side effects reported from using herbs correctly are slight nausea, headaches, and sometimes rashes. This usually results from using the herb incorrectly, as in too large of a dose or for a prolonged time period, or because of a plant sensitivity.

Click here to learn more about plant sensitivities and how to check for allergies to herbs.


There are also certain herbs that can be toxic when taking in large doses or if taken for prolonged periods of time. It’s not that these herbs can’t be used, as they can under the guidance of an experienced herbalist, but when it comes to a new herbalist using them… it’s best to find an alternative. Some of these “toxic” herbs include arnica, lily of the valley, foxglove, mandrake, opium poppy, and poison ivy.

Another consideration when using herbs long term is to assess them for chemicals that can be toxic to the body when taking for long periods of time.

Herbs like comfrey and coltsfoot, while great for short-term use, can compromise liver function if taken too long due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) found in these plants. Other plants like senna and cascara sagrada (herbs with laxative effects) can lead to dependency when taken too long. Another example is licorice which can raise blood pressure when taken in large doses over long periods of time, but when taken in small doses for long periods acts as an excellent adaptogen.

Long Story Short

Herbs have a track record of being safe… if you use them responsibly. High quality, whole form, traditional preparations can be used safely, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that knowledge and wisdom are key here. Taking charge of your health and the health of your children is a big task, but it’s one that should be taken seriously and responsibly.

Knowing about herbs or working with someone who does.


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  1. Jill @ JillsHomeRemedies says:

    After taking medications as a teenager and suffering from side effects, I’m so thankful for the safety and effectiveness of herbs!

    • Meagan says:

      Yes! It’s nice to have natural options and save the medicines for when we really need them! Thanks for sharing Jill!

  2. Michelle says:

    As someone very new to herbs I am really enjoying this series! Thank you for putting it together. Under the heading Herbal Side Effects, you say “Click here to learn more about plant sensitivities and how to check for allergies to herbs.”, but the link isn’t active. Could you let me know the link? Thank you very much.

  3. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this post. It is something that people need to see when they use herbs. You don’t need to be afraid but you do need to know how to use them safely.

  4. linda spiker says:

    I love herbal medicine and need to learn more about it. Thanks for the great information!

  5. Emily @ Recipes to Nourish says:

    I love using herbs, thank you for this thoughtful post.

  6. Megan Stevens says:

    I didn’t know about the rule of whole; but it makes a lot of sense, same as the co-factors in foods. Thanks for this informative post. I am grateful to learn from you.

    • Meagan says:

      Yes Megan… I’ve never thought about it from the food side much. I’ll have to study up on co-factors! LOL! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Renee Kohley says:

    Such great info – thank you! I’m pinning this.

  8. Rachel @ day2dayjoys says:

    Good to know!!!

  9. Anna@GreenTalk says:

    You mentioned in the article that one should use the whole herb. Does that include the stem as well? Also, so many people are using essential oils which is an extraction. So is this not good or not as good as using the whole plant?

    • Meagan says:

      When I’m referring to the “whole plant”, I’m talking about any part of the plant in its natural form. Whole just means you’re not extracting a certain constituent from the plant and taking only that as a supplement. And yes, essential oils are extracts. Extracts work very well, but they don’t have all the buffers to help the body deal with side effects and whatnot. I believe extracts (supplements and EOs) have their place, but you have to be sure to use them at safe doses and monitor for negative effects.

      • jiti says:

        Thank you for very interesting topic and content. May i ‘d like to have an issue: How to recognize a safety use for herbal formula drugs, as scientific evidences have on this time?

        • Meagan says:

          It can be tough, Jiti. If you know a bit about researching and finding applicable, high-quality scientific studies, Pubmed or Google scholar can be a good two good places to find information. Many companies that sell herbs will include links to current scientific information on the herbs. If you are a part of herbal groups that study herbs, often times you can ask for information and advice there. You can also purchase herbal books that help provide this info. Best of luck in your research!

  10. Chloe @ How We Flourish says:

    Very good and important information. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Cinda says:

    I’ve done reading in many blogs that goats beard (usnea) is beneficial in many ways. Some say because of the uric acid it can harm you. Can you tell me more?

    • Meagan Visser says:

      Great question. First, studies that have been done on usnic acid have shown severe hepatotoxicity when usnic acid was used as an isolated ingredient. At this point in time, there is no known evidence that traditional preparations made with whole usnea (teas and low-alcohol tinctures) have contributed to liver issues when used in recommended dosages, but it is something to keep an eye out for in other supplements you take seeing how there are times when usnic acid is isolated and added to supplements. Next, all species of usnea contain usnic acid (1% of usnea’s weight), and usnic acid is poorly soluble in water. Per this post and my research, the properties of usnea are best extracted in water and alcohol, so using usnea teas and low-alcohol tinctures won’t yield large amounts of usnic acid in the final preparation. You can also purchase usnea teas that are standardized which means the lab that makes them monitors how much of specific chemicals end up in the final product, usnic acid being one of them. Hope this is helpful!

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