When herbal medicine use becomes herbal medicine misuse

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – topical astringent available OTC in any pharmacy as an extract

The sales of herbal medicine products have climbed steadily over the past 30 years in the United States, most of those sales in just a few trendy herbs that come into fashion and then fade back.  But herbal medicine is far from new — it is the original medicine, and 40% of the US Pharmacopeia today consists of botanical products.  Many modern widely prescribed drugs are botanically derived, including Tamiflu, codeine, Pseudoephedrine, reserpine, Teniposide, Taxol and Topotecan.

Unfortunately, herbal medicine misuse is also increasing: on the side of suppliers who extend their profits with adulterated products or simply are not trained to recognize raw herbs properly, a growing pack of “herbalists” with no medical training and most frequently of all, misuse on the part of consumers armed only with the internet and an herbal encyclopedia, but no understanding of chemical interactions, contraindications or diagnostic skills.  Consumer misuse generally rises from one of two states:

  • An innate belief that herbal medicine doesn’t actually have power, which manifests as assumptions that herbal remedies are safe because they are “natural.”
  • An innate belief that herbal medicine is all-powerful, which often manifests as fear of taking a therapeutic level dose and/or persisting in taking an herbal remedy which is not working.

Herbal medicines do not work because they are magic natural pixie dust, they work because plants contain specific chemicals and chemical cocktails that cause changes in the body.  One person may have high blood pressure and another low blood pressure, but neither should blindly take an herbal product because it says “heart health” on the label: they may get the opposite effect they need.

This post was inspired by a story I heard recently.  The story is second-hand and may not contain all the exact details, but I’ll treat is as-is for the purposes of the example.  A mother has a young infant who has been agitated, crying and having difficulty breathing due to congestion for two weeks.  The mother posts in a forum online that she has been rubbing the infant’s throat and chest with rosemary essential oil, but is looking for other suggestions of essential oils with which to treat the child.

In this example, we see a) an innate belief that the herbal treatment must be safe, b) the belief that a particular treatment must be effective despite all evidence to the contrary, c) the application of the wrong treatment d) the wrong method of dosing anyway, and e) very likely an overdose given the dangerous concentration of chemicals in essential oils applied to an infant, causing stomach, intestinal and kidney irritation.

This is a thorough case of herbal medicine misuse although the mother has the best of intentions.  The child is being treated with a concentrated transdermal and inhalant application of a nervous and circulatory stimulant, which will not help with the pain and congestion but will make it difficult for the infant to rest.  It may be making the situation worse by increasing the child’s distress.  In this case, the consumer is misreading the “uses” of rosemary listed because she doesn’t understand what the chemicals do, and how and in what situations it would have the desired effect.  At two weeks it is long past time to seek professional help when dealing with an infant.

Don’t be an herbal misuser.  If you wish to make herbal remedies part of your health care practices, seek out a qualified practitioner or a training class.  If this is beyond your means, some science-based or reputable links are given below to get you started.

University of Maryland Medical Center
NYU Langone Medical Center
Henriette’s Herbal
PDR for Herbal Medicine
Google Scholar (in lieu of regular web searching, but still use care and judgement evaluating sources)
Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians
The Practice of Pharmacy (1886)

6 thoughts on “When herbal medicine use becomes herbal medicine misuse

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately with the recent boom in essential oils via companies like Young Living. It seems all the available info out there is only from the company selling the oil, which makes me more than uneasy.

    • I share your unease at essential oil marketing. In the context of Multi-Level Marketing, their distributors can make claims that companies legally cannot. Second, very little research has been done specifically on essential oils. Researchers are not interested in a particular preparation of a plant, they are interested in the component chemicals. Contrary to popular belief, a LOT of research is available and ongoing on plant based medicine. But any EO claims made are a smorgasbord of every possible use someone has ever hinted at, whether that method included chemicals that can be extracted with steam distillation or not. This is somewhat of a problem with dried herbs and herbal teas as well, but not to the same extreme.

  2. As a qualified aromatherapist with coming up to 14 years experience I am sometimes shocked at some of the information that is doled out.

    And many a time I have had people say to me that they have tried certain remedies with no results, usually because they are not using the correct essential oils or the dosage is wrong.

    The big one here is lavender…people use it liberally because it is a ‘well known’ sleep aid, what is less well known is that large amounts have the opposite effect and stimulate.

    The same can be said of things like green tea which people start drinking by the bucket load because it’s healthy, without realising it does actually contain caffeine.

    When I hear the phrase ‘but it’s natural’ my retort is often ‘so is opium’. It usually gets my point across.

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