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Wise tips

For those who are new to using plant medicines, many features may seem unfamiliar or confusing.  The following are some tips and considerations from expert practitioners to keep in mind.

Note that this advice is only general in nature. You are a unique person. Your medical problems may have a standard name but your experience of them will also be unique. Even conventional drug regimes have to be tailored to suit the individual and this tailoring is usually done by a trained practitioner. If you are treating yourself you should understand that there are no text books that apply exactly to you. Treat any information about your circumstances as broad guidance only. The following is our best prudent advice to avoid problems and improve your chances of a beneficial experience of using plants as remedies. We cannot and do not claim to be able to attend your needs directly and do not take any responsibility for that.


Proceed with care!

If you intend to treat yourself answer some key questions.

1)   Is your condition suitable for self-treatment? Are you sure that it does not need further diagnostic investigation? Some minor symptoms can disguise more serious conditions – if any symptom persists more than expected you really must seek expert diagnostic advice. Do not continue treating yourself if the symptom does not respond in a timely fashion. Seek further advice if the symptom returns too quickly. (For example coughs and colds are commonplace and usually self-limiting; if however they persist too long they could develop into stubborn chest or other infections; if they keep returning too often they could indicate reduced immune resistance that could lead to other problems or even persistent post-viral fatigue conditions.)

2)   Have you made an informed choice of plants to use? Promotional claims for herbal products are sometimes not as regulated as they should be. Read beyond the hype into well-balanced books or websites. Look particularly at safety information. We attempt to provide the best current advice on this site but do also look more widely to get a broad spectrum of advice. If you can do try to find someone expert in using plant medicines.

3)   Have you chosen a good quality product? Many available on the market fail basic quality standards and there is insufficient discrimination between good and bad products in many areas. Read our advice on quality before you start.

4)   Have you taken other medication into account? Many prescription drugs have their doses finely tuned to best effect – too much or too little could be serious in some cases. We know that interactions between medicines is common. A physician will hopefully have titrated any prescriptions so that individual interactions are tested by monitoring individual outcomes. If you then use a plant medicine or herb without the physician knowing that can upset this balance. Do tell your doctor about your use of plants. Do refer them to this site. Do print off relevant information and hand it to them. Do not self-treat at all without referring to your prescribing physician if you are prescribed medicines for heart disease, blood clotting, epilepsy, severe depression, HIV, insulin-dependent diabetes, psychotic illness, or after transplant surgery.

5)   Are you pregnant or breastfeeding? The basic advice here is not to take any plant or other medicine without professional advice. In particular look at each plant monograph for specific advice here.

6)   Are you engaged in any potentially dangerous activities? Even driving a car can be affected by some medicines. Look carefully at potential risks for this and for operating dangerous machinery or involving in hazardous occupations.


Converting dose measurements

Each Plant Medicine monograph on this site lists the suggested dosage of the plant.  However, this information is not always straight forward since dosages will change depending on the form the plant is in.  Most commonly, dosages are listed in grams, which refers to the weight of the dried plant material unless otherwise noted.  The dried plant may be used to make tea, consumed directly, or may be powdered and encapsulated.  However, not all capsules contain a simple powdered herb.  Some capsules are freeze dried, dehydrated plant extractions or concentrated plant constituents.  All these processing methods change the raw dosage and must be taken into consideration when deciding how much to take.  Check product packaging for conversion charts that indicate how much plant material is in the suggested dose. A good product will have this information clearly stated. If it is not clear on the box, this may mean that the product is inferior in other ways: consult with an expert practitioner or call the company for clarification.


Forms of Plant Medicine

Plant medicines can be taken in many different forms.  Traditional preparations included teas, tinctures or topical applications such as ointments or salves, soaks and poultices.  Today, numerous other preparations are available including tablets, gel caps, and highly concentrated encapsulations.  Not all preparations are the same, and each has their respective drawbacks and advantages.  Each Plant Medicine monograph includes information about suggested preparation methods for that particular plant.  Generally speaking, consider the following when picking what form of plant medicine you’d like to use.

  • Teas – Many people have tried a herbal tea as a pleasant beverage.  Therapeutic teas can also be made by simple hot infusion with boiling water, although they are often made with a larger does than what is found in a typical tea bag.  Teas made from the harder parts of plants (i.e. bark, roots, and some seed pods) require boiling the plant material – decocting - for 10-15 minutes.  Preparing tea daily may be easy for some, but too time consuming for others – especially if several doses a day are required. You could try keeping some in a vacuum flask.  In some circumstances, herbal teas can also be used topically as a hot compress or soak.
  • Tinctures – Tinctures are made by soaking plant material in a combination of water and alcohol.  After allowing time for the desired qualities of the plant to be extracted, the plant material is removed and the remaining liquid is administered in drop or teaspoon doses.  Tinctures have a long shelf life and are often blended to create unique therapeutic formulas for a particular person.  The alcohol content may be a problem for children or those sensitive to alcohol.  Glycerin tinctures are sometimes available as an alternative in those cases.  If the taste of the tincture is too strong, consider mixing it with some water or juice to make it more palatable.
  • Powders – Herbal powders are made by grinding the raw plant material into a fine dust.  One of the biggest advantages to taking plant material in its powdered form is that it is usually the least expensive type of preparation.  However, swallowing a teaspoon of powder isn’t easy.  One of the best methods is to put the powder on the back of the tongue and then chase it with a beverage.  The powder can also be mixed in some foods (like apple sauce or oatmeal) or in a beverage.  Powders can be capsulated with extra effort (and extra cost). A downside of powders is that they lose their volatile constituents more easily and are prone to the deleterious effects of storage: keep carefully and not for long!
  • Marketed products – Innovations in the herbal product industry leaves no shortage of options for consumers.  While traditional methods of herbal preparation can require time and equipment to get ready, newer products are often as simple as popping a pill.  This can be a convenient option for many people; however products on the market have their share of disadvantages as well.  With few regulations monitoring the quality of commercial herb products, the consumer must assess each product carefully.  Look for clear identification of what is in the bottle, including not only the common name of the plant but also the Latin name and the part of the plant used.  Be aware that processing methods and the age of the plant material impacts its efficacy.  The Plant Medicine team is working to produce a list of reputable, independently verified herbal products and companies to help consumers find appropriate quality products.  Watch this site for updates on this endeavor.


Monitoring effects of plant medicines

There was a time in history when plants were the front line therapeutic agents, relied upon in emergency situations and showing effects within seconds.  Like the pharmaceuticals that have since taken over that role, acute life-saving herbs balanced on the boundary between toxic and therapeutic effects and required a skilled hand to administer the beneficial dose.  Today, the herbs found on the marketplace are generally from a completely different level of therapeutic potency.  In the middle ground on the food to pharmaceutical spectrum, the effect of most plants are felt on a gentler level.  Benefits are sometimes felt immediately, but might take weeks or even months to appear (especially with chronic or long standing conditions). 

If you are not satisfied with the results of your herbal remedy, first assess if you’ve given it sufficient time to have effect.  Consider also the quality and dosage of the product you are using, since both are huge factors in determining the therapeutic potential of an herbal remedy.  If the task seems daunting or confusing, consider consulting with an expert practitioner.


Not all herbal medicines are “time tested” or “ancient” remedies

A long record of historical medicinal use provides invaluable clues as to how a plant can be used safely.  It is not illogical to assume that if a plant has been used by humans for thousands of years, that the most immediate threats of toxicity were extensively examined.  If administered in an approximate equal dose with similar preparation methods to its historical roots, then one can consume the herb with reasonable reassurance of its safety in the short term (one should always be careful about using plant remedies for long periods).  However, many herbs on the market have not been used historically or are being manufactured with new methods that alter the dose, constituent make-up and potentially the activity of the herb in the body.  When assessing potential risks of an herbal remedy, consumers are wise to consider not only the available scientific data, but also traditional use data.  Plant Medicine is a unique resource that offers evaluation of both realms.  The summary of traditional and historical use under “What does this plant do” section of each plant monograph can help consumers determine how their intended use of the herb compares with how it has been used over time and across the globe.


Use our database

An educated consumer is a wise consumer.  By consulting Plant Medicine, you are already taking an important step in understanding how to use herbs safely.  Each herb monograph includes a summary on the safety considerations of that particular plant.  Special attention is given to using the herb while pregnant or breastfeeding, possible overdosing, and common side effects.  Safety information is constantly updated and is derived from the world’s most authoritative reviews of herbal safety, including the World Health Organization and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the UK.  Consumers and health care practitioners who are interested in reviewing the studies and data on which Plant Medicine monographs are based are encouraged to consider a professional membership to the EXTRACT database.


Consult a professional

Inform your primary health care practitioner about your decision to use herbs.  Click here for tips on how to initiate and conduct a constructive conversation with your doctor about medicinal herb use.

The best possible resource to promote the safe and effective use of therapeutic plants is a professional herbalist.  Not only will they be able to identify and prevent potential problems and interactions, they can also help to choose appropriate herbs for each individual and aid in the monitoring of progress.  To learn more about finding and seeing a professional herbalist, click here





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contact us           Where to find us? Last Updated: 14 September 2011