Using Herbs Simply and Safely

Before you jump into the world of herbal medicine, let’s go over some important information first.

To prevent problems when using herbs:

  1. Be certain you have the correct plant.
    2 .Use simples.
  2. Understand that different preparations of the same herb can work differently.
  3. Use nourishing, tonifying, stimulating, and potentially poisonous herbs wisely.

Using the wrong herb is one of the simplest ways to get into trouble. How does it happen? Popular names overlap for herbs, creating uncertainty as to the correct identification. Correctly labeled herbs can contain foreign matter from another, more harmful, herb. Herbs may also be selected after harvesting at the wrong stage of growth or treated improperly, allowing them to develop detrimental qualities.

Protect yourself with these simple steps:

Buy herbs only from reputable suppliers.
Only buy herbs that are labeled with their botanical name. Botanical names are specific, but the same common names can refer to several different plants. Marigold can be Calendula officinalis, a medicinal herb, or Tagetes, an annual used as a bedding plant.
If you grow the herbs, be meticulous about keeping different plants separate when you harvest and dry them, and obsessive about labeling.

A simple is one herb. For optimum safety, make simple preparations containing only one herb.

Many mistakenly believe that herbs must be used together to be effective (probably because potentially poisonous herbs are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate the damage they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties, such as goldenseal and echinacea, is counter-productive and more likely to cause trouble than a simple. A simple tincture of echinacea is more effective than any combination and much safer.

Different people have different reactions to substances, whether drugs, foods, or herbs. When herbs are mixed together in a formula and someone taking it has distressing side effects, there is no way to determine which herb is the cause.

With simples, it’s easy to tell if there is an allergic reaction to a herb. Limiting the number of herbs used in any one day (to no more than four) offers added protection.

Side effects from herbs are less common than side effects from drugs, and usually less severe. If an herb disturbs the digestion, it may be that the body is learning to process it. Give it a few more tries before giving up. Stop taking any herb that causes nausea, dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, headache, or blurred vision. (These effects will generally occur quite quickly.) Slippery elm is an excellent antidote to any type of poison. It is particularly important to review resources that list the side effects of herbs before you use them if you are allergic to any foods or medicines.


The safety of any herbal remedy is dependent on the way it is prepared and used.

Tinctures and extracts can contain the alkaloids, or poisonous, parts of plants and need to be used with care and wisdom. Tinctures are as safe as the herb involved (see below for tonifying, stimulating, sedating, or potentially poisonous herbs). Best used as simples, not combinations, especially when strong herbs are being used.

Dried herbs made into teas or infusions contain the nourishing aspects of the plants and are usually quite safe, especially when nourishing or tonifying herbs are used. Dried herbs in capsules are generally the least effective way to use herbs. They are poorly digested, poorly utilized, often stale or ineffective, and quite expensive.

Infused herbal oils are available as is, or thickened into ointments. They are much safer than essential oils, which are highly concentrated and can be lethal if taken internally.

Herbal vinegars are not only decorative but mineral-rich as well. A good medium for nourishing and tonifying herbs; not as strong as tinctures for stimulants/sedatives.

Herbal glycerins are available for those who prefer to avoid alcohol but are usually weaker in action than tinctures.


Herbs comprise a group of several thousand plants with actions which vary widely. Some are nourishers, some tonifiers, some sedatives and stimulants, and some are possible poisons. We need to understand each group, its uses, best manner of preparation, and normal dosage range to use them well.
Nourishing herbs are the safest to use; side effects are uncommon. For any amount of time, nourishing herbs are taken in any quantity. They are used, much like spinach and kale, as food. Nourishing herbs provide high levels of proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes, and essential fatty acids.

Examples of nourishing herbs are: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula flowers, chickweed, comfrey leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, flax seeds, honeysuckle flowers, lambs quarter, marshmallow, nettles, oatstraw, plantain (leaves/seeds), purslane, red clover blossoms, seaweed, Siberian ginseng, slippery elm, violet leaves, and wild mushrooms.

Tonifying herbs act slowly in the body and have a cumulative, rather than immediate, effect. They build the functional ability of an organ (like the liver) or a system (like the immune system). Tonifying herbs are most beneficial when they are used in small quantities for extended periods of time. The more bitter the tonic tastes, the less you need to take. Bland tonics may be used in quantity, like nourishing herbs.

Side effects occasionally occur with tonics, but are usually quite short-term. Many older herbalists mistakenly equated stimulating herbs with tonifying herbs, leading to widespread misuse of many herbs, and severe side effects.

Examples of tonifying herbs are: barberry bark, burdock root/seeds, chaste tree, crone(mug)wort, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane, fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail, ladys mantle, lemon balm, milk thistle seeds, motherwort, mullein, pau darco, raspberry leaves, schisandra berries, St. Joans wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild yam, and yellow dock.

Sedating and stimulating herbs cause a variety of rapid reactions, some of which may be unwanted. Some parts of the person may be stressed in order to help other parts. Strong sedatives and stimulants, whether herbs or drugs, push us outside our normal ranges of activity and may cause strong side effects. If we rely on them and then try to function without them, we wind up more agitated (or depressed) than before we began. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants – whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee – leads to loss of tone, impairment of functioning, and even physical dependency. The stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose needs to be, and the shorter the duration of its use.

Herbs that tonify and nourish while sedating/stimulating can be used freely, as they do not cause dependency. Sedating/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish: boneset, catnip, citrus peel, cleavers, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, motherwort, oatstraw, passion flower, peppermint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.

Strongly sedating/stimulating herbs include: angelica, black pepper, blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, licorice, opium poppy, osha root, shepherds purse, sweet woodruff, turkey rhubarb root, uva ursu leaves, valerian root, wild lettuce sap, willow bark, and wintergreen leaves.

Potentially poisonous herbs are intense, potent medicines that are taken in tiny amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects are common.
Examples of potentially poisonous herbs are: belladonna, blood-root, celandine, chaparral, foxglove, goldenseal, henbane, iris root, Jimson weed, lobelia, May apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, poke root, poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey corn root, wild cucumber root.

In addition, consider these thoughts on using herbs safely:

⦁ Respect the power of plants to change the body and spirit in dramatic ways.
⦁ Increase trust in the healing effectiveness of plants by trying remedies for minor or external problems before, or while, working with major and internal problems.
⦁ Develop ongoing relationships with knowledgeable healers – in person or in books – who are interested in herbal medicine.
⦁ Honor the uniqueness of every plant, every person, every situation.

Remember that each person becomes whole and healed in their own unique way, at their own speed. Herbal medicine can help in this process. But it is the body/spirit that does the healing. Dont expect plants to be cure alls.