The estimated number of people taking herbal medicine that do not tell their doctors is around 60-70%. Many of these people do not realize they should notify their doctor because they assume that herbal medicine is safe or free from side effects. (One of my grandmothers is a classic example). The truth is, all herbal medicine has some kind of side effect. What makes herbs generally safe is the fact that they contain many active ingredients that balance the effect of the herb. For example, ginger has active ingredients that harm stomach lining, similar to the way a pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs do, but at the same time it has a powerful active ingredient that protects that same lining. As another example of nature’s brilliance, coffee has ingredients that cause cells oxidative stress, and other ingredients that are powerfully antioxidant. Even so, some herbs can be harmful on their own if taken long term or in high doses, Kava being a perfect example.
The way that most herbs interact or can interfere with pharmaceutical medication is by acting on the way the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes or eliminates the drug. Many herbs have minor effects, while others can make drugs more or less effective or cause more serious problems. The study of these interactions is an emerging science, with a lot of research coming out of geographies with a greater history of herbal medicine use, such as Japan, Taiwan, India and even Europe.
Because the amount of information we still need to learn about herb-drug interactions is immense, there are a few general rules that can help keep you safe if you are taking herbs and medications:
1) Do not take them at the same time. If you take meds with breakfast and dinner, take your herbs at lunch or if you take meds with a meal, take herbs an hour after a meal for example.
2) Take special caution with herbs when you are on medications for diabetes, heart disease or stroke and herbs commonly change blood sugar levels and many effect blood pressure or heart rate. Make sure you know what your herbs do physiologically. Herbalists are great sources of that information.
3) Do tell your doctors what herbs and supplements you are taking, it’s important. You may learn useful information or get tips on new sources of information about the herbs you’re taking. If your doctor does not know much about herbs, you can help educate them by referring them to your herbalist (or acupuncturist or naturopath) to learn more.
4) Work with a trained health professional when mixing herbs and medications. The health food or vitamin store clerks may be helpful and knowledgeable, but they do not take the place of actual medical advice. The best person to prescribe you herbs is a trained herbalist (or acupuncturist or naturopath).
Herbs can work well for people on medications and should not be left out of a treatment regimen simply out of fear. Work closely with health practitioners and you should be able to get the best out of both conventional and herbal medicines.