Natural Can Be Dangerous
According to expert botanist and herbalist, Eric Yarnell,
ND, RH (AHG), an assistant professor in the department of
botanical medicine at Bastyr University and president of the
Botanical Medicine Academy in Seattle.
Dr. Yarnell emphasizes that overall, when used properly,
most herbs have an exceptionally strong safety record,
especially when compared with pharmaceutical medicines. But, he
says, misuse can create danger even with some seemly benign
For instance, oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate) -- a
primary ingredient in many OTC ointments used to soothe sore
muscles -- is generally thought of as quite innocent. But
products with it are intended for use on small areas of the
body only. Unfortunately, people sometimes become overly
enthusiastic and rub the ointment all over themselves, which is
a major mistake. Using ample portions of these ointments can
have serious consequences, especially for children whose livers
can't process the active ingredient as well as adults.
Dr. Yarnell says that people have died from too much oil of
wintergreen because in excess, it can cause kidney failure,
among other problems. Check product labels for ingredients and
use caution, he says.
TWO CATEGORIES TO BE ESPECIALLY CAUTIOUS
According to Dr. Yarnell, two categories of herbs require an
especially high level of care when using -- not so much because
of their medicinal effects, but because of the dangers of their
form. These are essential oils and certain low-dose herbs.
Essential oils are somewhat of a surprise because they are
so commonly used, both for their healing properties and as part
of aromatherapy. But that is why Dr. Yarnell is so concerned
about them -- they are in many homes today and most people,
including therapists and shop owners, have no idea that they
are potentially dangerous.
Essential oils are an extremely potent herbal concentrate,
hundreds of times more concentrated than crude extracts or
herbal teas and very easy to overdose on. Dr. Yarnell feels
strongly that essential oils are best used only under the
supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, preferably a
naturopathic physician, clinical herbalist or
A second concern about the oils is that they are highly
flammable and people frequently use them around candles, which
creates obvious risk. He cautions that these oils should never
be left where children can reach them. They smell good, are
easy to open (he would like to see all oils have childproof
caps) and are appealing to kids who may think they're "yummy."
Keep them far out of children's
The second most dangerous form of herbal products are
certain low-dose herbs. Low-dose herbs are often called that
not because they come only in low doses, but because they are
safe only at that level and become toxic at higher
levels, depending on the individual. These tend to be
well-known and commonly available at health food stores.
The most common names of these prescribed low-dose
- belladonna (an antispasmotic)
- Colt's Foot (a demulcent)
- comfrey (topically used for skin irritation, internally
used for fracture and sprains)
- digitalis (for congestive heart failure and
- pennyroyal (for stomach upset )
- sassafras (for rheumatism)
- tansy and wormwood (as antiparasitics)
But just as you need the supervision of a doctor when taking
a powerful pharmaceutical, you must use low-dose herbs only
with the guidance of a trained practitioner.
Dr. Yarnell explains that he uses these herbs successfully
and often in his practice, but he has heard some real horror
stories about people who decide to strike out on their own with
Comfrey, for instance, can be carcinogenic when ingested.
However, when used properly and in appropriate levels, it can
have minimal risk.
Before the rise of the Internet there wasn't much chance
that people could get their hands on these types of low-dose
herbs because they were not readily available to the public,
says Dr. Yarnell. But now, unfortunately, some Internet sites
do advertise them, and so it is especially crucial to be aware
of how dangerous they can be and use them only in consultation
with a practitioner knowledgeable about these herbs.
WATCH OUT FOR MINERALS, TOO
Herbals aren't the only natural substances that require
caution in use, although they are generally the most potent.
Dr. Yarnell adds that other natural substances, too, require
careful usage because they can build up in the body and some
have acute side effects.
For example, colloidal silver (tiny suspended silver
particles) is popular right at the moment as a natural
antibiotic, but Dr. Yarnell says that not only is research on
it nearly non-existent, it is considered a heavy metal because
it has no physiological function in the body, so it tends to
become poisonous at lower doses, than say, zinc, copper and
iron, which are all necessary to the body in small amounts.
In fact, the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine has posted a consumer advisory on the Web
warning about the danger of colloidal silver (http://www.nccam.nih.gov/health/alerts/silver/index.htm).
LEARN TO BE SAFE
The key to using natural products safely, then, says Dr.
Yarnell, is education -- and a healthy dose of common sense.
There is so much information on the Internet, but many sites
are bogus and even dangerous. Rather than risk your safety,
your best bet is to develop a relationship with a trained
naturopathic physician who can prescribe and monitor
Keep in mind that some drugs, including prescription and
over-the-counter drugs, have been shown to interact with herbs
and supplements. Be sure to notify your doctor of any natural
products you are using and likewise, notify your naturopathic
physician of all prescription and OTC medications and
supplements. What to do: If you are taking any drugs,
don't add nutritional supplements or herbal medicine without
If you would like to be more knowledgeable about these
products, Dr. Yarnell recommends The Encyclopedia of
Medicinal Plants (DK Adult) by Andrew
Chevallier and any of the numerous books concerning herbs by
Bottom Line Daily Health News
Natural Can Be Dangerous
Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), assistant professor,
botanical medicine, Bastyr University (Seattle). He is
president of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Seattle