"Beware of natural products," advises David Hoffman, the famed herbalist from England. This may seem to be a strange comment coming from an herbalist. However, what Hoffman is referring to is the public's general lack of caution when consuming products that are "natural" (Hoffman). Many people wrongly assume that herbs are "harmless"; and often seek to switch from their medication to herbal therapy because they believe herbs have no side effects. However, any knowledgeable herbalist will tell you that this notion could not be farther from the truth. Herbs do have side effects, not all herbs are safe, and many herbs have conditions that contraindicate their usage (Balch, p.35). Furthermore, although 25% of prescription medication (and 40% in veterinary hospitals) is still manufactured from herbs, herbs do not go through the same testing that pharmaceutical medicines do.
This is harmful for the public because it not only gives them a false sense of security, but it also gives them a false sense of alarm about many herbs that are in fact safe (Murray, p.56).
Ibn Sina set forth the proper methods for testing medicine, which are still used today, as far back as1037 C.E. (Tschanz). However, because of dispute and competition in the pharmaceutical market, herbs have been forced into the category of "nutritional supplements" rather under than the category of "medication". This move, largely supported by the American Medical Association, was made to prevent herbs (which cannot be patented) from competing for money in the large pharmaceutical market (Hoffman). However, the side effect of this move has been that new herbal formulas and other "natural" products are not being tested properly. Ibn Sina's protocols required the following tests be done on any "new" product:
- The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.
- It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.
- The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.
- The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose "heat" is less than the "coldness" of certain diseases, and therefore would have no effect on them.
- The time of action must be observed, so that essence and action are not confused.
- The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, then it only constitutes an accidental effect.
- The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man (Tschanz).
Herbs with long histories, such as ginger, garlic, black seed and sage, do not pose a great threat to the general population, as their usages, side effects and benefits have already been studied and tested over thousands of years. Numerous studies have also recently been done in order to further prove what has been known about these herbs for thousands of year. However, rather than proving what we already know…that herbs work…we should be more concerned with new products and claims popping up on the market (Balch, p.66).
|Rosmarinus officinalis is a famous Mediterranean woody, perennial herb with fragrant, evergreen leaves and white, pink, purple or blue flowers. (Image credit: EGYPT TAWI FB page).|
It is new products such as oxygen supplements, natural progesterone, colloidal silver, standardized herbal extracts and modified herbs that are a cause for concern when it comes to herbal testing. Because of their toxicity levels, metals like colloidal silver have already been banned from use in the medical field by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, silver is now being touted as a "natural antibiotic" in the alternative health field. "So, it kills off microbes. So does radiation," says Hoffman (Hoffman).
Another product that is generally unsafe for human consumption is silica. The advertisers tell us that silica is the active ingredient in the herb horsetail, and that because of this element, horsetail can heal connective tissues, hair and nails. "Studies" cite the fact that we have silica in our hair as "proof" of their product. However, the only reason we have silica in our hair is because the material lies on the surface. It rides on the layer of dust we pick up from our environment. The human body does not contain silica, nor can it use it in any way. Silica, commonly known as quartz, does not dissolve in either water or alcohol (Hoffman).
There are many other "natural" products that are unsafe for people. When choosing a product, commonsense demands that we refer to the Qur'an for guidance. In the Qur'an it says, "Eat of the good things We have provided for your, sustenance, but commit no excess therein" (20:8 1). Allah has provided us with many herbs and natural foods that can heal us; these are listed in the Hadith and Qur'an. There is no reason to "modify" these substances or to consume substances known to be toxic to man. A common way to choose a natural product when few studies have been done on it is to stick with products that have a long history, such as ginger, and avoid modified or "improved" versions of herbs.
This lack of standardized testing on herbs has also led to the "demise" of many herbs in modern usage. While pharmaceutical casualties undergo rigorous testing to confirm their actual danger, herbs can be accused on purely anecdotal evidence. One example is herbs and products with coumarin in them. Medical doctors have recently recommended that patients who are taking "Coumadin" do not consume any herbs that contain coumarin. However, all green plants contain coumarin and one would have to avoid most vegetables and some grains to really avoid consuming it. Coumarin itself does not actually have any anti-coagulating properties. It is a fermented form of coumarin, called dicoumarin that affects the body. No scientific studies have been done that prove that consuming coumarin containing foods and herbs with Coumadin actually had anything to do with any pharmaceutical casualties. However, because there are no protocols set up for herbal testing, practitioners have felt free to make assumptions about particular herbal products and declare them contraindicated for many of their clients (Hoffman).
Another example is the ban on using herbs before surgery. Although a patient should never take herbs without the approval of their doctor, this ban actually did not come about because of a negative experience with all herbs, but because of only two or three isolated cases in Europe involved negative side effects from two specific herbs (Hoffman).
However, even some safe herbs can become dangerous if they are contraindicated or if they are used without proper instruction. An example is Essiac. Many people think that Essiac is a "totally safe and natural" cure for all cancers. However, although it is effective in many cases, it can be dangerous if you have a family history of kidney stones, gout or arthritis. This is because Essiac contains Sheep Sorrel, which has a high concentration of oxcelic acid, which the human body cannot process (Murray).
David Hoffman recommends the following standard for measuring the effects of an herb:
- Make sure the healing effects that are claimed are consistent with the pharmacy of the medicine. For instance comfrey has no effect on the heart at all so if someone claims it will help the heart or if someone else claims that it may cause heart disease, you can assume both people are wrong.
- If you experience something you think was a reaction to the herb, try to also list other changes in your life that may also be to blame.
- Make sure the person being tested has taken the herb for long enough. Herbs should be taken for three to six weeks to be effective.
- Make sure the person taking the herb has not taken an overdose.
- If the person stops taking the product, observe any effects that may come or disappear upon halting.
Hoffman also recommends that we, as consumers, be wary and skeptical of the modern herbal market and conduct our own research. He states the following things to beware of when shopping for a healing product:
- If it sounds to good to be true it probably is.
- Beware of celebrity endorsements.
- Get your herbs and your advice from a knowledgeable professional and not someone selling the products. Professionals are usually trained in the chemistry, contraindications and real properties of herbs whereas product marketers are usually either untrained (they learn all they know from the company) or they are only rained in simple herbal medicine ("Echinacea is used for the immune system", "Hawthorne berry is used for the heart" etc... ).
- Beware of products that claim a "secret formula".
- Beware of products that claim to have no side effects (Hoffman).
- Beware of exotic herbs and research their original uses (such as Kava Kava which was a ritual herb).
In today's herbal market there are few rules for the people who market natural products. However, if we, as consumers, "vote with our wallets" and buy only those products that satisfy the guidelines set out by Ibn Sina and follow the recommendations of David Hoffman, we may find that new protocols will be quickly put in place. When this happens, we will be safer as consumers and more useful herbs will be allowed in the marketplace.
The following website has more information about herbal safety:
Karima Burns, MH, ND attended an herbal and natural healing conference the weekend of August 18th, 2001.At the conference she met many well-known and respected herbalists and healers. During the next few weeks she will be sharing with you some of the latest trends, insights and movements within the natural health field.
- Hoffman, David. "A Plea for Traditional Protocols." Frontier Herb Fest Speech. August 18, 2001.
- Balch, Phyllis, RN and Balch, Dr. James, MD. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York: AveryPress, 1996.
- Murray, Michael, ND and Pizzorno, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1991.
- Tschanz, David. "The Arab Roots of the European Medicine." Aramco World 1997.
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