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Herb-Medical Contraindications 1 of 2 : next >>
by: Michael Moore

[The reason for this list | The focus of this list]
[Philosophical considerations | Notes | Table of contents]
[Post Note]

Synergistic and iatrogenic potentials when certain herbs are used concurrent with medical treatment or medical health care.

Copyright 1995 by Michael Moore. Use it, share it, just don't sell it or change it in any way (unless you get my permission).

The Reason for this List
A list of side effects written by a toxicologist or a pharmacologist will deal ONLY with potential problems that a particular constituent may cause, and seldom treats a plant as a Gestalt. They don't understand HERBS.

A list of side effects written by most herbalists will deal with side effects from over-dosage or adulteration, and will seldom consider the implications for drug or procedural medicine. They don't understand MEDICINE.

I feel fairly secure in both worlds, so this list of potential synergies and contraindications is meant to honor BOTH approaches. I am talking strictly to the working practitioner; these are PRACTICAL concerns, not theoretical ones.

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The Focus of this List
My intent in this list is to wed both approaches:

  1. What herbs may present overt drug reactions.
  2. What herbs may present synergistic effects to:
    1. a person undergoing a particular metabolic stress.
    2. a person undergoing drug therapies
  3. What herbs have side effects BUT that are frequently used without adequate warnings, marketed with an anti- medical bias, or taken unwisely by those that feel NO herb can be harmful because it is natural.

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Philosophical Considerations
If you are used to viewing biologically active agents as analogs to drugs, you need to suspend those standards when dealing with most herb preparations. Some of these plants CAN be reduced to the pharmacology of specific constituents, and they are so noted. The majority of potential reactions occur when an herb STIMULATES metabolic processes that are already in an excited state. The usual models of drug toxicology will fail to predict such reactions; these are NOT, strictly speaking, drug reactions, but often-predictable idiopathic synergies. Predictable, that is, if you are willing to view most herbs as multi-systemic holistic medicines, offering a "profile" of effects that can help OR aggravate, depending on the PERSON using them.

Herbs should be free of side effects within their therapeutic window and when used by a person whose constitution is complimented, not antagonized by the herbs. Whether or not you accept any value to Botanical Medicine, this is Conventional Wisdom amongst herbalists. Side effects from herbs are unwanted, both by herbalists wishing to strengthen, not denigrate homeostasis, and by skeptics who doubt any value to herbs except from placebo or accidental drug effects.

On the other hand, a careful evaluation of potential drug therapy starts with the basic understanding that drugs HAVE side effects at the proper dose, and the value must be weighed against the detriment. Most possible problems I have listed will only occur in potentiated states, and may be subtle enough to be ignored by Believers (Don't be so defensive!), magnified totally out of proportion by Skeptics (Don't be so judgmental!). We all tend to be too isolated in our peer groups, always preaching to our particular choir.

Some physicians feel any self-treatment with biologically active agents is dangerous. Many people consider this either professional arrogance or the attempt to stifle competition. I have nearly always observed the attitude to derive from a very real concern; a physician's biochemical tools are drugs. By extension, docs may rightly presume that any agent capable of promoting change probably has similar potential for side effects. Carried to an irrational extreme, some medical folks feel that anything WITHOUT potential side effects is quackery. This, of course, leaves any alternative approach in a Catch-22 bind.

There is little intrinsic danger in using herbs, since few have the potential for DRUG side effects. The side effects are usually idiosyncratic or idiopathic, and not predictable by drug standards. This brings me back to why I have assembled this list.

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[1] Some of these plants are illegal, not from the pseudo-scientific rationale of law enforcement (except Cannabis and Lophophora) but for the practical legality that THEY AREN'T SAFE. Nonetheless they still find their way into personal use. I have developed the libertarian attitude that permeated 19th and early 20th century pharmacy: "Let them take what they want's a Free Country. If they don't know any better, let's thin the herd!" We, however, have a generation or two of people that EXPECT a warning label on everything, and that have come to doubt common sense. Of course many dangers in modern life do not warn by taste, smell or appearance...radiation, pollution, etc. Given this, plant drugs like Yohimbe and even Ma Huang should, in my opinion, not be available in the same marketplace as Peppermint and Sarsaparilla. But they are.

[2] Some of these herbs are only encountered in "ethnic" use, but, with most ethnic groups suffering diminished coherence of tradition, a Wise Woman or folk herbalist may not be around to give appropriate advice.

[3] A few of these herbs are seldom encountered in the herb trade but rather are wild crafted and used inappropriately. Some of this may be MY fault, since I write about the use of plants that are low-dosage botanicals and presume that the reader has Common Sense...not always a reality. Many of us distrust ANY authoritative limits...this anti-author-itarianism may be encountered in the way some people use even sensible herb books.

[4] Herbal Cure-Alls and thinly veiled Phytopharmaceuticals are a growing part of the health-food industry. In Europe they are usually dispensed under medical supervision; they have no place in American Standard Practice but instead have entered the alternative health marketplace as "Herbs". They are more concentrated, more refined, have little of the biochemical buffering or "fuzz" that whole plants offer, and are NOT metabolic tonics but substances intended for specific subclinical pathologies...Little Drugs if you will. Their use is intended for conditions that have been medically diagnosed...not for self-treatment based upon sometimes inaccurate self-diagnosis. It's one thing to take aspirin for a headache or use a bitter to trigger improved upper digestive function. It's another thing to take proven immunostimulant or anti-oxidant substances (even if derived from plants) if based on "I get sick a lot" or "I bet my liver needs cleansing".

Not only is this an entirely new realm of potential iatrogenesis, but also it has a corruptive influence by my way of thinking. It centralizes the MARKETING of herbs into the hands of a few, but without offering guidelines for DIAGNOSIS. And it seduces folks from the sensible heart of self-treatment...self-knowledge.

One-size-fits-all is not self-empowerment.

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