How to Start Using Herbs Part 2: Are Herbs Safe? Plus, How to Know How Much to Use?
Are herbs safe to use? How are herbs used to safely and effectively help heal the body? Is an herb a drug? Are herbs better than medicine? How much do you have to take? Isn’t herbalism a “weird” way to natural health? Isn’t it hard to figure out which herbs to use? And the big question: How can I start using herbs and not make a mistake and accidentally poison myself?
These are all common questions and thoughts that swirl through the mind of the person new to herbalism and plant medicine. Most of us have grown up with the mentality of “just go to the doctor and get a pill (or three or four).” But maybe there is another way to health? A more natural one? But then for many, the questions and doubts kick in.
Am I right?
In fact, those were some of my own thoughts and questions as I began down this herbal and natural path to health.
And that’s why I’m putting this series together—so you can have a guideline for how to use herbs safely and the kinds of herbal preparations available for you to try.
In Part 1 of this Series: How to Start Using Herbs, I talked about herbs in general: Which herbs you should start out using first, how to source your herbs (growing, foraging, and purchasing), and how to store your herbs properly. I also touched a little on safety factors of using herbs.
This Part 2 of the How to Start Using Herbs Series is going more in depth on the safety of using herbs and actual dosing. I decided to write this section next, before going into any actual herbal preparations because that way, when you start experimenting (and maybe you already have—-HOORAY!), you’ll have an idea of how much to use and also feel more confident in beginning your herbal journey.
So, let’s get started!
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Herbs: Are They REALLY Safe?
The first thing to understand is that people have had a relationship with plants for tens of thousands of years. It’s only been during this century that people in our western culture have lost touch with their relationship with plants and even their own health.
Using herbs has been proven over and over again to be safe, and negative side effects are rare.
The choice for “modern” people to abandon using herbs and natural remedies as the first step to health and healing has been a decades-long transition that began in the late 1800’s.
The norm for most people 100 years ago used to be hands-on visits from neighborhood healers (think Doc on Gunsmoke or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), the town pharmacist who would personally mix plant solutions and formulas for people (my great-grandfather was an old time pharmacist at the turn of the century).
The community doctor and natural remedies were sought out if there was a real problem. Grandma was often the very first person the family turned to for healing remedies and health. Pioneers learned how to use native plants from Native Americans, and they also brought their own knowledge about using plants for health and healing from the Old World.
And here we are now:
The allopathic system we are familiar with is sterile, impersonal, often dehumanizing and embarrassing, and cold. Busy doctors tend to look at lab results and computer data over taking the time to do a real holistic review of a person’s needs, lifestyle choices, and history. In fact, I can’t remember the last time a doctor actually “knew” me as a person.
The Difference Between Herbalism + Natural Health Practices and Modern Medicine
There is a saying in the herbal world: “Herbs treat people; pharmaceuticals treat disease.”
Think back on your own experiences with modern medicines.
If you reflect on the medicines you’ve taken in your life, it becomes apparent that these medicines were prescribed to get rid of symptoms and not actually heal the body.
On the other hand, herbalists and natural healers like naturopathic doctors try to see the person in a holistic (whole) way in order to bring balance and help the body build strength depending on each person’s unique needs.
I want to state right now that I am not anti-science or completely against modern systems of medicine. I believe there is a time and place to reach out to modern health care, have surgery, diagnostics, and emergency medicine instead of depending on the herbal apothecary. However, there is a dark side to modern medicine that can’t be denied.
The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to find out how to combine the old ways with the new. To not forget the valuable health practices of the old ways or turn completely away from modern medical advances that can help people.
One of the problems is that modern medical systems have been “propagandized” into our culture to be the ONLY way to go. We have been taught via media, education systems, parents having been taught by their parents and grandparents that the modern ways are best, and by being told by the medical community that their way is the ONLY and best way. Even (and dare I say, especially) the government has had a hand in this “re-education” of the public.
I’d like to share some statistics with you. These come from The Herbal Academy of New England’s Intermediate course (see sources below):
“Adverse drug reactions (ADRs) are the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, accidents, and automobile deaths. This statistic does not take into account the number of ADRs in ambulatory settings or those deaths caused by physician or pharmacy error. (fda.gov)”
Pretty scary, right? How about these facts:
“Hospitals produce 1/5 of the U.S. waste stream’s mercury, a neurotoxin that is released into the air during medical waste incineration or dumped into waterways (Buhner, 2002).”
“Antibiotic misuse and overuse in both people and in factory-farmed animals is responsible for the emergence of untreatable “superbugs.’”
“Pharmaceuticals most often act to mask or relieve symptoms and do not address the underlying cause of the disease, which may continue to persist.” (I know this from very personal experiences.)
“Pharmaceutical estradiol causes fish to start changing sex, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories have killed all but 3% of all the vultures in Asia (Health Care Without Harm)”
And there a many more quotes I could mention. But that’s not really what this article is about. In order to establish the safety of using herbs, I do think we need to take a good look at the opposite question, “Are pharmaceuticals really safe to use?” The FDA currently gives the “ok” to many Rx and OTC drugs that have been proven to be UN-safe due to serious side effects.
On the other hand…..
Using plants to heal the body, mind, and spirit has been the form of medicine for people for thousands of years. In fact, our modern system of medicine is largely based on how plant compounds have effected the human body for health.
Aspirin is a great example. The chemical contained in modern day aspirin is found in many plants, like Willow Bark. The thing is, the modern medical industry has found ways to extract that one constituent and/or to recreate it using waste products and now we have modern day aspirin.
But by using a willow bark tea or tincture from the plant, ALL the chemicals are being used together. This synergy of plant constituents is more well-suited for health and healing than just the one chemical all by itself.
This is a very simplistic example because the chemical reactions from using the actual plant versus the lab-based pill are very different in the body. Willow bark has a much broader range of actions on the body and few or no side effects; while aspirin, although a powerful pain reliever, has a greater and more dangerous number of potential negative side effects.
Whole herb use is safer as well as often times being more effective than using isolated chemicals extracted or recreated in a lab from the plant. Isolation of a specific chemical can actually cause toxic reactions in the body, while use of an herbal tincture or tea quickly delivers the plant constituents to the cells of the body in a safer way.
Using herbs for health is not a standardized process. Due to the nature of using herbs to support health, there is really no way to be sure that using plant medicine will yield the same result every time, for every person.
This is due to the many variables involved: the freshness of the plant, where and how it was grown, potential adulteration by commercial herbal supplements, and how different people respond differently to the plants.
Herbs are Not Drugs
This is a really important statement. Herbs are not drugs.
Herbs are foods. Herbs are supplements. Herbs can have drug-like actions on the body, but still. They are not drugs. Herbs can support our health and healing. However, an herb is not a drug.
In our country, an herb is currently classified as a dietary supplement. Because of this, no medical claims can be made. This kind of makes it a tricky thing for herbalists to try to help others because the language seems a little “shifty.”
However, those selling herbs for health are not legally allowed to make structure and function claims (such as “this or that herb will heal your high blood pressure”). This puts the onus for finding natural remedies for your own personal body squarely on each individual.
Herbalists can certainly make recommendations and also provide herbal supplements, like tinctures, teas, and other infusions; but an herb is simply not classified as a drug. This fact can’t be over stated.
This is why you see herbalists and herbal shops and people like me who write about herbs continually making the statement: “I am not a medical doctor…..” (You’ll see it at the end in my disclaimer.)
So what does this mean for us?
Well, it simply means that we are all in charge of our own health, and one of the choices available to us is to use herbs. Using herbs effectively and safely takes some knowledge, experimentation, and trial and error. Regardless of the effort it takes, it’s worth the effort to start going natural with your health, in my opinion.
Start out slowly. Read a great book! The book that gave me a good foundation for my own personal herbal journey was Rosemary Gladstar’s book, Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.
Even though it is a guide for beginners, trust me: she packs a LOT of good information and ways to use safe herbs for your health into this book.
Even after years of taking courses, self-study, reading and following other experienced herbalists, I still turn back to that first book I ever read for guidance.
If you are interested in taking some great courses for beginners, I started my journey out with Rosemary Gladstar’s Sage Mountain course, The Science and Art of Herbalism. I am not an affiliate, but I can recommend this course because it sets a strong foundation for learning about herbs.
I’ve also taken several courses from the Herbal Academy of New England, and they have a well-rounded group of courses for all levels of experience. They also provide fun recipes and ways to begin experimenting safely in their beginning courses. I love this school.
They have mini-courses meant to help us learn about specific topics such as ADHD, stress, herbal fermentation, etc. It’s a wonderful school (and yes, I am an affiliate).
How Much of an Herbal Preparation Should You Use? How to Use Herbs Safely
I’m going to answer this question very generally here and a little more specifically as I get into the different herbal preparations in the next articles in the series. This is because how much you use depends on a lot of factors.
First of all, if you purchase your herbs in a bottle in capsule, tea, or tincture form from the store, just follow the directions on the label. Be sure you are purchasing from a reputable company. There are many herbal supplement companies out there now, and be sure to do your research. I would avoid companies based outside the United States.
I do purchase some of my herbal supplements this way, such as olive leaf and aged garlic for blood pressure. However, I formulate most of the herbs Mr. V. and I use for our different health needs.
As far as formulation goes, I’ll write about that in a separate article in the series. But you can always start out with some good books that have recipes! Here are a few you can start out with right away and feel confident about using:
Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide (Gladstar)
Making Plant Medicine (Cech)
The Way of Herbs (Tierra)
and there are many others.
How to Dose Herbs:
There are many systems for dosing herbal preparations, and these are good to explore. But I’m going to share the way I do it, based on what I’ve learned so far (and I continue to learn). Here are my basic steps:
1) I take a look at the person. Are they large? Robust? Or small? Thin? A large, heavy person can take a larger amount of an herb than can a small, thin person. The energetics of a person is yet another factor, and I’ll discuss that more later on.
2) What is the herb being used for? Is it for nausea? Is it indicated for a headache? Tension? Or maybe to aid sleep? Some health issues require a higher or lower amount of herb.
3) Are you using a single herbal formulation (called a simple)? Or are you combining herbs for a synergistic effect?
4) Frequency: How often should you take the formula?
In general, an adult dose will range from about 2 to 5 mL of an herbal formula, 2-3 times a day. And for comparison, a half-teaspoon is about 2.5 mL, and 5 mL is about 1 teaspoon full.
For myself and Mr. V., we tend to use smaller amounts. Three droppers full of a standard dropper in an amber glass bottle is about 2.5 mL. Sometimes just one dose is enough, as in the case of a headache. But sometimes, using that dose 3 to 4 times a day is better indicated.
For “food” herbs or herbs that are highly nutritive like dandelion, burdock, and nettles (among others), you can be more liberal.
For the question “How often should you use the herbal formula?”, here are some ideas:
A standard dose would be how Mr. V. and I use tinctures above. A dose of about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon three to four times a day.
However, if you are dealing with an acute situation or if the formulation is being used to help balance or support a condition (like my blood pressure, for example), then taking the formula more often (I take a dose of Hawthorn 3 to 5 times a day) is the better choice.
Sometimes taking a smaller amount more often throughout the day is the best choice.
Keep in mind these are very general guidelines, and you need to make decisions about the particular dose depending on the kind of herbal preparation you are using (tea, tincture, capsule, oxymel, etc.), the constitution of the person, the size of the person, and the specific indication, or need.
What is the Difference Between an Acute Condition and a Chronic Condition?
**For dosing acute conditions, a smaller dose given frequently may be far more effective than large doses taken farther apart.
An acute condition is usually short term, is aggressive, and often responds quickly to the herb used. Examples are tension headache, fever, stomach upset, menstrual cramps, etc.
One example is menstrual cramps. Taking a tincture of Cramp Bark will help alleviate the cramping, and help you feel better fairly quickly. But the feeling will be much different than taking one of the over the counter medications for menstrual pain.
In my opinion, the cramp bark works a tad more slowly, but there is definitely a better overall feeling of well-being—I can actually feel the muscles relaxing—-and no side effects.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you are coming down with a cold. You’re beginning to get the sniffles and a bit of congestion. Well, the typical OTC (over the counter) drug will solve the symptom problem fast, but will not head off the cold or help the body heal faster.
Using an herbal formula (say an immune boosting tincture, elderberry syrup or a tonic drink like Fire Cider) very often throughout the day will help the body fight off the cold and flu but will not necessarily take care of the symptoms with the same immediacy as the OTC. But still—-the symptoms will be helped and so will the healing process.
You could use other herbs for the symptoms, however, such as a mullein and marshmallow combination, and these will also help support the healing process. But keep in mind, herbs sometimes just don’t have the dramatic immediate results that drugs have. Herbs do support health and healing.
You can find out a LOT more about what to do in all phases of the Cold/Flu in this eBook. There’s information about all the stages and natural remedies you can use to support your body and feel better really quickly.
**For dosing chronic conditions:
If the condition is causing acute symptoms, then you’ll want to treat it like it is an acute condition. But typically, you would take larger doses over a long period of time. The thing about chronic conditions is being consistent. You can’t just stop the program or forget to take your herbs.
Chronic conditions usually take a lot of time to demonstrate consistently, sometimes over a period of many years. They may be caused by family genetics, lifestyle choices, or by taking medications for long periods of time. They are also more difficult to improve.
Examples of chronic conditions may include blood sugar levels, blood pressure, allergies, asthma, eczema, anything that has been ongoing for a period of time.
One guideline I found in Rosemary Gladstar’s book is that for every year you’ve had a chronic condition, it will take a month of consistency to treat it. She does state that this is rather arbitrary, but it’s a good general guideline.
My high blood pressure is a good example of this. I’ve probably had borderline high blood pressure for the past couple decades at least (I’ve never really had a primary care doctor).
Medications from the one medical doctor I saw did not help (he scared me into giving it a try, and honestly, I felt worse on the medications—you can read about this in these heart-related articles: 8 Herbs for Your Heart, Things to Do Every Day to Help Your Heart, and How to Lower Your Cholesterol Naturally. )
So, what I have been doing, and has helped considerably, is to take my herbal supplements of choice at least twice a day; and for the hawthorn tincture and the essential oil protocol, 3 to 4 times a day.
Here’s another example of how I figured out my allergy problems, which I had been dealing with for the better part of every year of my life for decades.
I started using a tincture of marshmallow and mullein, plus using raw honey in tea. Over a period of a year, my allergies decreased, and now I hardly ever suffer. It’s been a pretty amazing thing.
Keep in mind that I was one of those children who needed an allergy shot every two weeks, and an Rx drug for much of every single year. As an adult prior to using natural methods, I just suffered. Then I found herbs!
These are little examples of how you would work with a chronic condition.
Using Herbs with Children:
I’ve come across people over the years who will take herbal remedies for themselves but opt to give their children the prescription drugs just because the doctor said to. Using herbs is a safer option, and most children do very well with natural remedies. But many young parents feel a lack of confidence in this choice.
I do understand this. We give our blind trust over to doctors, because as I mentioned above, we have been “indoctrinated” and trained to do this.
The best advice I can give here is to take a look at the side effects listed on the OTC and Rx medications, and compare those to the side effects of an herbal remedy. This will underscore the safety of using herbs.
Rosemary Gladstar has an excellent dosing chart for children in her book, Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, which can help you determine how much to use for children.
Final Reflections on the Safety of Herbs and Deciding on How Much to Use
“There are no fixed methods to apply to the human predicament, there is no single all-pervasive rule to follow, since medicine is not a science, but an art.” —-Michael Moore, herbalist & author
I think Michael Moore said it perfectly in that quote. When we go to the doctor’s office, the medications we are given are standardized and dosed based on whatever criteria they use based on the population in general. They are not individualized for the single person. There is no time for that in the allopathic world.
With natural remedies and herbs, the whole person is taken into account. You work with the specifics of that person’s body and mind and history. You work with lifestyle. There are so many factors at play.
Why not take a look at the medicines you use for typical illnesses like the cold or flu or other common non-life threatening health issues or ailments and put them aside for a minute.
Try out those natural remedies and herbs and do some trial and error work with them. I’m not talking about dangerous conditions, here, but common problems we all deal with from time to time, like a headache.
Instead of reaching for the incredibly liver-damaging ibuprofen, how about reaching for the peppermint tea? Or dabbing a bit of lavender essential oil on your temples? You may just be surprised!
And if you decide they don’t work for you? Well, you can try something else. Or, you can always go back to the drugstore.
Finally, I want to mention lifestyle choices. Sometimes all we really need to do is exercise consistently or lose a little weight. Stop smoking or other bad habits you may have. I know I have my own crosses to bear in the lifestyle category, and we all do.
In your journey toward natural health, don’t forget about the basics first!
I’d love your thoughts, comments, and experiences! So leave a comment in the comments section so we can all learn from each other.
You may also enjoy these related articles:
and the first article in this series: How to Start Using Herbs Part 1: Which Herbs? How to Source? How to Store?
And there are a TON more on the blog! Also—stay tuned for the next article in this series: Part 3: Is Herbalism and Plant Medicine Right for You? Plus, What Tools Do You Need for Your Herbal Apothecary?
Don’t forget to check out Starwest Botanicals for some excellent herbal and tea blend options!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
P.S. If you haven’t done so yet, sign up for the newsletter! One of the free eBooks you’ll get is for my How to Relax Using Herbs eBook plus others as they come out!
I am not a medical doctor. In no manner, stated or implied is anything in this article meant to treat, cure, diagnose, or prevent any disease or illness. These are simply my opinions based on experience and study. Please be sure to seek medical attention from a medical doctor before using herbs or essential oils. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
The Herbal Academy of New England Int. Herbal Course Materials
Gladstar, Rosemary. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Copyright 2012. Storey Publishing.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ (general site—easy to search)