Reap the Benefits of Therapeutic Herbs while Keeping an Eye on Safety
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The use of herbs for medicinal or therapeutic purposes can be traced back to ancient times. In the past few decades, their healing properties have thrust them out of the skeptic’s realm and into the favor of patients seeking natural alternatives to chemical drug preparations. Today, many healthcare professionals support the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, and schools for alternative and herbal medicine are springing up coast to coast. By contrast, Western medicine largely looked askance at their use until relatively recently.
Herbs are most commonly ingested in the form of teas or capsules. Chamomile and peppermint are popular herbal teas known for aiding digestion, while a variety of herbs are available in capsule form, promising health benefits ranging from memory improvement, mood enhancement, stress-reduction, and prevention of cardiovascual disease and various cancers.
The Benefits of Herbs
For example, garlic is often sought due to its reputation as a sort of panacea to ward off many health problems. Studies have been conducted that show it may be effective in preventing heart problems, age-related disorders, and high blood pressure. Echinacea products are used to treat or prevent the common cold. Feeling a bit moody lately? St. John’s Wort is often heralded as an antidote for depression. Stressed out from juggling work, family, and a social life? Kava is known for its anxiety-reducing and muscle-relaxing properties, and is another herb popularly consumed as a tea. Keep forgetting where you left your car keys? Try popping a Gingko biloba capsule to improve your memory, and if you’re looking for your car keys so you can drive up to the mountains for the day, you’re getting a double benefit: this herb was shown to reduce mountain sickness (ill effects from ascending to higher altitudes) in at least one study.
As a general rule, consult your healthcare professional before you start taking herb-extract capsules, which are higher in strength and potency than teas. As discussed below, certain health conditions or medications can cause dangerous interactions and side effects. Once you’re cleared for herb use, remember that it may take several days’ or weeks’ worth of use to experience the associated health benefits. Be patient and take the supplement as directed.
Beware of Side Effects
A word of caution: don’t see the word “natural” or “herbal” on a label and assume these words are synonymous with “risk-free” just because they are not synthetic or chemical in nature. Different herbs can affect people in different ways. While chamomile and peppermint are considered mild herbs that are generally safe and pose low risk, the rest of the popular herbs mentioned above, for example, can cause unwanted reactions or symptoms, some severe, depending on the individual user’s body make-up, health history, or current drug
Ginko biloba has been shown to cause upset stomach, headache, and skin reactions in some people. People with a history of hepatitis should be aware that kava may contribute to liver disease; it also may cause disorientation or scaly rash in some people. St. John’s Wort has the potential to cause hazardous side effects when taken in combination with other anti-depressants. Regular use of garlic can increase bleeding. The side effects of Echinacea have been identified as minor (nausea, dizziness) to severe (swelling, difficulty breathing, exacerbation of asthma). Discontinue use immediately and consult a healthcare professional if any of these symptoms occur.
Because herbal supplements can cause adverse reactions with or negate the intended effect of other drugs, it is essential to inform your physician or other prescribing healthcare professional of any products you are using before beginning a prescription or undergoing a surgical procedure. If your physician does not inquire whether you are using herbs, speak up and tell him or her. This information may change the course of treatment (e.g., delaying elective surgery if an herb that increases bleeding is part of your repertoire, prescribing a different medication).
Herbs have a place in the medicinal and healthcare world – a place that seems to be growing, as evidenced by research generated and product sales. Users must keep in mind that, like any substance taken for medicinal purposes, herbs may pose health risks and should be considered accordingly.