herbal safety

bare4windsJanuary 14, 2006

It is a common myth that herbs are natural so they are harmless. The truth is that herbs sometimes contain potentially harmful compounds. Some of the better known herbs with the potential to cause serious harm include foxglove, belladonna, arnica, oleander, jimson weed, poke root, and lobelia.

The most common poisons found in herbs are cardiac glycosides and alkaloids. Cardiac glycosides slow the heart and strengthen the heartbeat. This is beneficial for certain people with heart problems such as congestive heart failure. On the other hand cardiac glycosides can create a serious drop in blood pressure leading to a stroke or stoppage of the heart. Digitalis, from the foxglove plant, is a common cardiac glycoside used in the treatment of some forms of heart disease. It is a powerful drug that has been used to save countless lives. Oleander contains 3 different cardiac glycosides, which has killed numerous people and pets. Every part of the plant is poisonous. Most people are killed when they use the branches for a hot dog or marshmallow stick, or stir their coffee with a twig. Children are often poisoned from chewing on the leaves or flowers. And a dog died after running through the smoke of the leaves being burned by the owner. Even honey made from the pollen of the plant is poisonous. Herbs containing cardiac glycosides include foxglove, belladonna, henbane, oleander, lily of the valley, and night blooming cereus (cactus grandiflorus).

The best known alkaloid, and most widely abused drug in the world, is caffeine. Another well known alkaloid, and dangerous drug, is nicotine found in tobacco and horsetail grass (shavegrass). This alkaloid is commonly used as an insecticide. Jimson weed is used rarely as a medicinal herb, and unfortunately sometimes as a recreational drug. This plant contains 3 very dangerous alkaloids known as scopolamine, atropine, and hyocyamine. Even though alkaloids have the potential to be dangerous, they can also be very beneficial. Alkaloids are the most common active compound in herbs, and the basis for nearly every pharmaceutical drug in existence.

A common question is whether or not herbs can interact with pharmaceuticals. The answer is yes. Just as pharmaceutical drugs can interact with pharmaceutical drugs, herbs can interact with pharmaceutical drugs, or with other herbs. This can be dangerous or beneficial depending on how it is used. Herbs can be used to prolong the effects, or enhance the absorption, of pharmaceutical drugs or other herbs. Or they can be used to strengthen the effects of pharmaceutical drugs or herbs. Here are some examples:

-Licorice root taken with steroidal drugs, such as cortisone, will strengthen and prolong the effects of the steroidal compounds. Licorice root can also enhance the absorption of other compounds.

-Echinacea can prolong the excretion time of pharmaceutical drugs and herbs. This can cause a potential problem if a dangerous drug or herb is being taken on a schedule. Drug levels in the blood will not have dropped as low as they would have normally before the next dose is taken. This could lead to an excessive buildup of a drug, or herbal compounds, in the blood.

-Hawthorn berry, Siberian ginseng, and plants containing cardiac glycosides will strengthen and prolong the effects of digitalis.

-White willow, meadowsweet, deer's tongue, sweet woodruff, cayenne, ginger root, licorice root, lomatium, sweet clover (meliot), alfalfa, spearmint, peppermint, birch, and wintergreen can increase the blood thinning effects of coumadin and aspirin.

-Licorice root, goldenseal, barberry, and Oregon grape root can accelerate potassium depletion if you are on pharmaceutical diuretics.

-Herbs containing cardiac glycosides, or smooth muscle relaxants may create excessively low blood pressure in people taking high blood pressure medications.

-High tannin containing herbs such as white oak bark, oak galls, manzanita leaf, and uva ursi leaf can combine with medications, and pull them out of the body. This can be very dangerous if you are on life saving medications.

-Fresh comfrey root and leaf, germander, boneset, nutmeg, and coltsfoot may cause liver damage if used in high doses, or for extended periods of time. Many pharmaceuticals are well known for causing liver damage, and chemically induced hepatitis. Examples of these types of drugs include cholesterol lowering drugs, the pain killers ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), and the hair growing drug minoxidil (Rogaine). Taking these herbs with any of these medications can increase the risk for serious liver damage.

Herbs can effect other herbs as well. This principle is often used to enhance the effectiveness of other herbs. An example is the combining of yerba mate' with pau d' arco, in South America. Pau d' arco is a powerful antiviral, though it's effects are enhanced by sulfur compounds. Yerba mate' is traditionally combined with the pau d' arco to provide the sulfur compounds. Other herbs can be used to enhance the absorption of other herbs. Yucca root, schisandra berries, licorice root, alfalfa, ginger, cayenne, dandelion leaf, and juniper berries are examples of herbs that enhance absorption, and effectiveness of other herbs. Though keep in mind that increased absorption can mean a potential for increased toxicity of certain herbs. Combining yucca root with poke root provides an example. Poke root is a fantastic immune stimulant, antiviral, and lymphatic cleanser, though it can also be poisonous in relatively small doses. Mixing yucca root in a formula with poke root, the risk of poisoning increases. Percentages of toxic herbs can be adjusted to compensate for their enhanced absorption to reduce the possibility of poisoning. Another example of a danger from mixing herbs can be seen with a mixture of lobelia with ginger. Lobelia is generally safe in small doses. Larger doses will normally cause vomiting which prevents the herb from poisoning the body. Though ginger suppresses the vomit centers in the brain better than drugs such as Dramamine. If the ginger prevents the vomiting up of the lobelia, the lobelia can relax the lungs to the point where a person could stop breathing.

Women who are pregnant should be especially careful when using herbs. Many herbs are uterine stimulants and may cause the fetus to abort. This is especially dangerous in the later stages of pregnancy when the risk of serious bleeding by the mother is greater.

Herbs may also be used to counteract side effects of other herbs. For instance a pregnant women can use smooth muscle relaxants such as red raspberry leaf or cramp bark to reduce the risk of spontaneous abortion by other herbs. High potassium herbs such as dandelion root can reduce the potassium depletion created by licorice root, barberry, goldenseal, and Oregon grape root.

Liver protecting herbs such as milk thistle, turmeric, artichoke leaf, and licorice root can be used to protect the liver from the effects of liver damaging herbs. Though many herbs considered toxic to the liver, such as comfrey, were found in some studies to only be harmful to the liver when taken in a fresh form. The dried herbs were not found to harm the liver. It is still recommended that when using herbs that are potentially harmful to the liver, you should combine them with liver protecting herbs.

Herbs should be given the same respect as pharmaceuticals. Herbalists should mix herbs for maximum effectiveness with the minimal chance of adverse side effects. Unfortunately this does not always happen. For example many diet formulas rely on ephedra (ma huang) and a caffeine source, such as guarana or kola nut, to stimulate the burning of body fat (thermogenesis). Though this works, it also overstimulates the adrenal glands leading to adrenal exhaustion. Adding adaptogenic herbs to the formula will help support the adrenal glands. Though, despite the possibility of damage to the adrenals by thermogenic formulas, many of these formulas still lack adaptogenic herbs to prevent the adrenal glands from "crashing".

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"Herbs should be given the same respect as pharmaceuticals"
Yup, always said this... always had to argue with people who think that because it came from a plant it is safe. I have seen people state in here that they take echinacea every day, even though there's info to say that it loses ifficacy after a week. I have seen people take aloe vera internally, even though it can cause diahrrea, because, if it's good for the skin, it has to be good for everything. I have gotten to the point where I just think that it weeds people out of the gene pool, like people who try to beat trains across the train tracks. Eric Oh is still trying to save them....
If you are not a trained herbalist, I view your taking herbs should be COMPLIMENTARY, along with western medicine. Because even in the old days when herbs were the only medicine, usually there was a village person who'd grown up apprenticing to the local healer.... meaning they'd taken years to learn about herbs.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2006 at 11:35AM
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I think I'm more like a catcher in the rye. :)

In addition to the good points raised in bare4winds post (is this something you wrote or quoted from an article?), one thing that is often overlooked when comparing herbal drugs and non-herbal pharmaceuticals is the level of tolerance we should have for side effects based on how effective the drug is in the first place.

We might be willing to accept potentially severe side effects in a lifesaving pharmaceutical (like an antibiotic or a proven chemotherapy agent), but not in a painkiller where safer alternatives exist. If an herbal drug or supplement does not have proven efficacy in treating a condition, it should have an extremely good safety profile with no potentially life-threatening side effects whatsoever.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2006 at 1:34PM
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Robyn, I think you meant 'complEmentary' - nobody is expecting praise! :-)

But seriously, I think herbs do have their place - alongside conventional medicines, with appropriate professional diagnosis, recommendations and supervision. 'Natural' doesn't always mean 'safe', as anyone who knows the first thing about herbs will agree.

I'm the last person to want to see the same control over herbs as there is over conventional drugs - but it frustrates me to see quite strong herbs so easily available. I'd like to see a middle-of-the-road approach. Have herbs and supplements available without prescription, but only from chemists, and only so that people need to ask for them. That way, the chemist can provide the necessary information - if necessary, with little pamphlets to go with each bottle of herbs. Such information would need to include contraindications, side-effects, interactions, and risks, as well as the dangers of self-diagnosing, and correct dosages.

It's information and education that's needed more than anything. Just as there are many people who still think that herbal medicine is so much hocus-pocus, so there are many who think that it's the be-all and end-all in medical treatment. Neither extreme, of course, is the case.

When providing information on herbs, I try as far as possible to balance out the benefits and the risks. People have the right to make choices, but I like to think those choices are informed choices.

I'd hate to frighten people away from herbs altogether, but at the same time, there are many instances where a too-casual approach needs a bit of a rein-in.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2006 at 8:53PM
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daisyduckworth, you are codex material, the kind of person thry want to suport them.

Its official. US research shows that inappropriate and dangerous medical treatments and adverse drug reactions are now the number one cause of death (4). To some it was no surprise. It seemed an inevitable outcome from the 1980Âs when health care was taken over by "health care" corporations and the pharmaceutical industry. Then the bottom line in health care became profit instead of sending the patient home well and drug free, if possible. (13)

There are still no Parliamentary enquiries into the deaths of 18,000 Australians each year, killed by inappropriate doctoring and prescribed pharmaceutical drugs that are licensed by the TGA (the Australian regulator). The cause of these avoidable deaths has been known by the government for over ten years when Dr. Runciman made it known in a report he prepared to the government in 1995. And yet nothing has been done about it. This makes these unnecessary deaths a deliberate act on the part of the perpetrators, the medical and pharmaceutical industry and the Australian government. This act is the equivalent of deliberately exterminating all living beings from an entire large sized Australian country town each year. (1,2,3). This killing for profit has been going on knowingly for the past 10 years.

In addition to the death toll, 50,000 Australians are maimed and disabled, not by their diseases, but by the "health Care System" which includes; bad doctoring and serious or permanent damage from drugs that were licensed by the TGA. Yet there are no outraged politicians giving undertakings on the Senate steps to find the culprits, to stop the criminality of it, a fact in itself astonishing, since there is a great deal of unnecessary killing and maiming going on; 187 Australians each day. ThatÂs seven Australians killed or maimed per hour. This is more Australians than were ever killed in all the wars. By the time you have read this another Australian will die or be disabled by inappropriate medical treatment or an adverse reaction from a drug that was licensed and approved by the TGA. Where are the memorials erected to these victims? (1,2,3)

For those who rely on their information from the media, where is the media reporting of this national catastrophe? A few years ago the media went on a feeding frenzy about an unfortunate person who died allegedly of an allergic reaction to royal jelly, a naturally nutritious food that worker bees feed to their queen bee. (Unfortunately many more fatal allergic reactions occur annually than ever before, to both synthetic and to natural substances, due to the fact that general immunological health is declining through environmental degradation.) The person had ingested both the jelly and a meat sausage before the allergic reaction occurred, one that could equally have been caused by the preservative in the sausage. However, the TGA launched a lengthy investigation into the royal jelly, and required Royal Jelly to carry a health warning on the label. The sausage, of course was not investigated, nor allocated a health hazard label, one that the fatty, preserved product could arguably deserve, since the nitrite preservatives in sausages are responsible for many serious or fatal allergic reactions.

By now the only real cut into drug company profits was the number of people that stayed healthy or got healthy from taking regular supplements - bad news for drug sellers. In addition, nutritional supplement manufacturers prospered on healthful products which again cut into drug company profits and market share. Some drug companies then diverged into making supplement lines and it is those products that are in competition with local manufacturers. Coupled with the bad publicity drugs are getting for contributing to the highest cause of deaths in the US, the new challenge for drug companies was to make drugs look healthy and good, to make them more available over the counter and to make vitamins and supplements look dangerous with the exception of those made by drug companies.

For that, the multinationals needed the following:

1. the world trade organization (WTO) for gaining entry into domestic markets and levelling the competition.
2. World health organization (WTO) Codex committee that sets "standards" for all supplements to be classed as drugs, which can only be allowed to be made synthetically by drug companies in line with "international standards" and not by local manufacturers using inexpensive natural raw ingredients.

3. A corporately structured regulator out of the electorÂs reach who would "regulate" wholly in the interests of the drug companies.

4. An international treaty (Joint trans-Tasman treaty) that would set up a new international regulator of Australia and New Zealand (the Trans Tasman joint Agency) that would be run as a corporation  even easier for drug corporations to manage.


July 4, 2005 Press Release

Minutes ago the full Commission of Codex Alimentarius adopted in final form, the Codex Guidelines for Vitamin and Mineral Food Supplements. This adoption is the Step 8 adoption, the final stage of adoption for the international Codex guidelines. The Codex Vitamin and Mineral Food Supplements guidelines are now official and no longer in draft form.

The Commission, attended by over 85 of the 171 Codex countries, adopted the guidelines by consensus method. There was brief discussion before adoption taking in comments from a small number of countries and two NGOs.

Australia requested adding the word "only" in Section 1.3 between the words "apply" and "in". The sentence would then read "These guidelines apply only in those jurisdictions where products defined in 2.1 are regulated as foods."

Australia's comments were followed by request from Venezuela and Spain to clarify the Spanish translation.

Venezuela was followed by China. China stated that every government in making decisions about vitamins and minerals should take into account the dietary limitations of their own countries, that governments can select vitamins and minerals according to the customs and habits of their country. China also pointed out that there should be definitions of the sources of vitamins.

Columbia spoke up and commented that Vitamins and Minerals are intended for deficiencies and are recommended for health reasons and said that there has to be no exaggerated use of minerals.

Egypt commented and offered a clarification saying that vitamin and minerals can be considered if daily needs are not being met.

After the countries were heard, the Chairman recognized NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). National Health Federation (NHF) a world wide consumer organization


    Bookmark   January 17, 2006 at 12:22AM
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I am not sure what the lengthy preceding post has to do with making sure that herbal drugs and supplements are safe and effective, or with contentions made in another thread that Codex regulations are somehow going to eliminate supplements from the market.

The answer to safety and effectiveness problems affecting the supplement industry is not to point fingers at mainstream medicine or promote inaccurate scare stories about Codex, but to accept responsibility for making good products for consumers.

The National Institutes of Health provides accurate information about causes of death in the U.S.
The claim about "dangerous medical treatments" comes from the Nutrition Institute of America, a group founded by supplement promoter Gary Null, who has called flouridation of water "deadly". More about him here.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2006 at 9:38AM
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Being that Daisy is from Australia, she may not understand the American system. I have noticed that "Facts" no matter who they come from, seem to always be slanted towards whoever is "finding" them. Personally, I don't trust either side, being they seem to both be fanatical. I think this is what Daisy is trying to portray. A middle of the road approach. I am quite aware of the corruption in the American system, but I am also aware that the Anti-Western medicine faction is closed minded as well, which can cause them to make decisions that aren't in our best interest either.
I agree with Eric's statement: "The answer to safety and effectiveness problems affecting the supplement industry is not to point fingers at mainstream medicine or promote inaccurate scare stories about Codex, but to accept responsibility for making good products for consumers."
I figger it's a constant battle to be responsible without personal interest corrupting the matter.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2006 at 12:36PM
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    Bookmark   January 17, 2006 at 12:37PM
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eric_oh - you just open the door to my fluoride connent by making your own on the same subject.

Fluoride is an unnecessary, toxic poison added to your food and water supply. No other substance deliberately added to food or water poses the health risks of fluoride.

A new study shows fluoride increases absorption of aluminum from deodorants, or pots and pans by over 600%! The aluminum concentration in the brains of Alzheimer's patients is 15 times higher than in healthy individuals. The fluoride/aluminum combination spells disaster for your brain's health!

That's not the only problem with fluoride. We've been told how good it is for us, but I'd like to dispel some of the myths about fluoride.

Fiction: Fluoride is a natural substance.

Fact: Fluoride occurs naturally in some water supplies as natural calcium fluoride, but the type of fluoride added to water and toothpastes is a hazardous waste by-product (hydrofluosilicic acid) coming from the phosphate fertilizer industries.

Fiction: Mandatory water fluoridation is safe.

Fact: An enormous body of evidence from both animal and human epidemiology studies is now clear. Fluoride exposure is linked to cancer, genetic damage, nervous system dysfunction, and bone diseases. Studies also link fluoride exposure to lowered IQ in children.

More Fluoride Facts:

Fluoride is more toxic than lead. Even in minute doses, it is damaging to brain/mind development.

Studies show that fluoride is linked to Alzheimer's and Senile Dementia.

In areas where fluorosis (fluoride poisoning) is prevalent, a higher concentration of fluoride is found in the developing brain tissue of unborn children.

Hip fracture rates are much higher in people residing in fluoridated communities.

Is Fluoride Toothpaste Safe? The answer to this question is a resounding no. The poison control center receives over 11,000 calls a year because of poisoning from ingesting fluoride toothpaste. In 1997, the FDA even mandated a poison warning label on fluoride toothpaste! Small children, who tend to swallow toothpaste, are most at risk. Signs of fluoride poisoning include vomiting and muscle cramps. Look for non-fluoridated toothpastes.

The widespread use of fluoride in our dental products, food, and beverages is causing massive fluoride poisoning in the U.S. population. Plus, the fluoridated water affects our food supply. Fruits and vegetables watered with fluoridated water mean toxic fluoride is leeched into the
produce you eat. Not even organic produce is safe from fluoride in the water supply.

Select Bibliography

"Health Effects of Ingested Fluoride." National Research Council (1993): 37.
Journal of the American Medical Association 264 (1990): 500-502.
Journal of the American Medical Association 266 (1991): 513-514.
Journal of the American Medical Association 268 (1992): 746-748.
Journal of the American Medical Association 273 (1995): 775-776.

The Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry
Volume 16. 1991

Fluoride levels in fruit juices


    Bookmark   January 18, 2006 at 10:24PM
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I mentioned Gary Null's beliefs about water fluoridation as in indicator of how trustworthy his "scientific" opinions are. The fearmongers are also heavily into denouncing other useful (and in the case of vaccination, life-saving) public health measures as purported government/big business/satanic conspiracies.

A rational view. More on the value of fluoridation.

Can we get back to herbal safety now?

    Bookmark   January 19, 2006 at 9:07AM
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nope... Well, as a person from a family of dentists and toothmakers who aren't fearmongers. They all think flouridation is a good thing, specially in a society of such sugar eaters.....

    Bookmark   January 19, 2006 at 10:33AM
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I only have to compare my teeth (what's left of them are full of cavities or rotting) and those of my children (perfect in every way, and they're middle-aged now) to see the value of water fluoridation. I didn't have the benefits of it, but my kids did.

The water where I live now is not fluoridated. Local dentists are in 2 minds about it. On the one hand, it results in a constant flow of patients and a generous income for dentists - on the other, as health-care professionals, they are very concerned with the poor quality of local teeth. Mainly, however, they favour fluoridation as being in the best interests of the general public.

Bare4winds - I'm afraid I do not 'get' the meaning of 'codex
material'. If it means that I'm in favour of a balance between herbal and conventional medicine, I can only think that it's a good thing to be!

    Bookmark   January 19, 2006 at 5:04PM
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Personally, I think people should be able to take herbs if they want to. I have noted through experimentation on myself that no small number of herbs are not as dangerous as many herbals would have them be, often because the growing conditions are not as optimal as they were way back when. I have also noticed that people are often stupid about how they take herbs. I don't see why herbs shouldn't be available to people who research what they are doing just because some people are idiots. I don't take ma huang with caffiene or in large amounts, for instance-- and I only take it when conditions warrent its use. When I experiment with herbs I make sure I know and have on hand the antidote first. We learn by experimentation what works, so making that impossible for everyone except doctors is idiotic. Doctors learned most of their herb lore in the past from lay persons. And probably always will.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2006 at 6:45PM
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The problem with this thinking... which to me used to be fine, till I noticed, that all is fine and dandy till something goes wrong....then people scream... For example, you may want to take any drug you want, then your cousin dies of an ephedra problem.... then all of a sudden your thinking is changed. Personally, I generally agree. I think that the stupids who mess with something they don't understand.... just weeds out their genes from the gene pool. But apparently, others don't see it this way. I see this in almost all aspects of American life... ANOTHER example... You all want a freemarket system... till you pay $3 a gallon for gas... then you scream. People seem to want what they want with no concern for the consequences...
I just do it... and unlike Cacye, I LISTEN when someone says there is a danger... some don't... that's why they try to beat trains in train crossings.... ANOTHER way to weed certain genes from the gene pool.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2006 at 7:21PM
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The point is that some people are not mentally swift, or are just ignorant, or whatever you want to call them, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be sick, or worse, so conventional medicine makes it 'easy' by prescribing set doses (3 times a day, etc.) which almost anyone can manage, rather than expecting that we all have what it takes to either research a drug or even read the label intelligently. Apart from whether the med. may have side effects (and herbs most certainly can have plenty, depending on the individual if nothing else), you can't expect some people to do the smart thing, and it may be better if they just stick with convention and not mess with what's not regulated, or consistent in formulation, etc. from bottle to bottle.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2006 at 4:34PM
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I'd like to know from the people still reading Herbalism Forum, how many of you have had side effects from the herbs your using? Also, how many people are still using herbs after reading the negitive thoughts about herbs from the people you have asked help from?

I don't think too many people still come here looking for advise, just by how many new post are being posted in a week.

I have well over a hundred herbs in my house, some are very dangerous and I have never had a side effect from any of them. I use my herbs for treating problem or correcting problems and helping friends that are fed-up
with painful treatments from conventional medicine.

Once in the begining I did over dose from Mullein, but it was done with poor judgement.

But to this day Mullein is one of my most used herbs, and is in the first aid box for allergies.

-- cacye - Medscape = good reading!

    Bookmark   February 5, 2006 at 1:06AM
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I tried St John's Wort many years ago (before I knew much about it) and it really had me practically suicidal, and I suffered dreadfully from photosensitivity.

Ginseng makes me as high as a kite, even small amounts added to commercial soft-drinks. It's extremely unpleasant, I can tell you! Like some sadistic person is working me with strings so I can't be still even though I get very tired after a few hours of it. It has me in tears of frustration. I now avoid it like the plague.

I can't think of others off the top of my head - I'm very careful these days, and I tend to stick to the herbs I know are OK for me. But I think the worst side-effect of the majority of medicinal herbs is the TASTE!

    Bookmark   February 5, 2006 at 8:44AM
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St John's Wort sent me into "serotonin overload" ... nasty experience.

Too much chamomile tea, too often, gave me nosebleeds.

Something in a "menopause relief" formula gave me hives and a headache (I think it was the yellow dock).


    Bookmark   February 5, 2006 at 3:28PM
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And people have died from Ephedra and other concoctions.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2006 at 7:24PM
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Sorry, I wasn't clear with my question.

I'd like to know from the people still reading Herbalism Forum, how many of you have had side effects from the herbs your using, not products with herbs in them, not ready made capsules or extracts?

As for the caffeine soda with ginseng,
what did you think was going to happen? Exactly what did happen, that's why they make strong caffeine soda's, add a few bits of herbs and call it herbal soda.

A problem with taste, It's best you stick with what you know best, sugar laced over the counted meds.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2006 at 1:46AM
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Any request for anecdotes about side effects from using herbal drugs will get just that - anecdotes. Some of these stories will come from forum users who are on multiple supplements and drugs, others from supplement dealers who are not the most objective source of information.

More reliable info can be found by doing a PubMed search to look for controlled clinical trials, or by investigating one or more of the non-commercial websites set up to provide data on herbal safety.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2006 at 9:15AM
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