10 Common Herb Mistakes - And How to Avoid Them

A cup of camomile tea with a full leaf herbal tea bag.
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When it comes to the herbs you're taking, are you unwittingly making mistakes that could harm your health? Here's a rundown of the 10 most common herb mistakes.

1) You drink chamomile tea without knowing what medications it interacts with.

Although most people think of chamomile tea as being harmless, it can have some serious side effects if it's combined with certain medications.

For example, a case report published in the April 2006 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal describes a 70-year-old woman who, while being treated with the drug warfarin, was admitted to hospital with internal bleeding after having used chamomile tea and body lotion for cold symptoms.

Tip Take a look at this list of drugs that can interact with chamomile.

2) You're tired all the time so you turn to herbs and other natural products to boost your energy.

Constant weariness, tiredness, or lack of energy warrants a trip to your primary care provider, not the health food store. Although diet and supplements may help, the first step is make sure that the cause of the fatigue isn't an underlying illness, such as:

Fatigue can also be a symptom of other conditions such as infectious diseases (e.g. mononucleosis), heart failure, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, Addison's disease, Autoimmune diseases (e.g. lupus), cancer, malnutrition, or due to medication side effects.

Tip See your primary health provider first. He or she will ask you questions and make sure you have the proper laboratory and/or imaging tests to rule out these conditions. Then you can think about natural approaches.

3) You take herbs, supplements, and/or drugs that together may increase your risk of bleeding.

Anticoagulant drugs such as aspirin or warfarin (commonly referred to as "blood-thinners") prevent the formation of blood clots inside arteries, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease. When they are combined with herbs and supplements that also have an anticoagulant effect, they can increase the risk of bleeding:

Tip If you are taking more than one of these herbs or are taking them warfarin, aspirin, or other anticoagulants, or if you are self-prescribing any of these herbs, consult a licensed holistic practitioner (such as a naturopathic doctor) for guidance. Be sure to inform your family physician of all herbs and supplements you are taking. Blood tests called the prothrombin time and international normalized ratios (PT/INR) can be used to assess blood clotting.

4) You quit your coffee or soda habit in favor of lots of yerba mate and energy beverages.

Yerba mate is the coffeehouse "it" drink. Widely consumed in Central and South America, it's often touted as a healthier alternative to coffee, a herbal tea that energizes without causing jitters. However, yerba mate has been associated with esophageal, oral, lung, and bladder cancers in several research studies. Although studies have found it's really only a risk for people drinking huge amounts of the tea (greater than 1 liter a day) or very hot tea, it should be avoided until more evidence is in.

Energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Monster Energy Drink, Full Throttle, contain caffeine and a slew of vitamins and herbs. One of the biggest concerns is that we just don't know enough about the combined effects of these ingredients. Many ingredients are believed to work synergistically with caffeine to boost its stimulant power. Most of them contain loads of sugar and are really no better than soda. What you need to know about energy drinks.

Tip If you're looking for healthier drink options consider water with a splash of pomegranate juice or cranberry juice.

5) You take "immune-boosting" herbs like echinacea and goldenseal with immunosuppressant drugs, such as corticosteroids.

Drugs that suppress the immune system are used to prevent organ rejection after transplant and to control the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and type 1 diabetes (more autoimmune diseases). Herbs that stimulate the immune system may counteract these medications, resulting in transplant rejection, an exacerbation of pre-existing autoimmune disease, or precipitation of autoimmune disease in people genetically predisposed to such disorders.

Tip If you are taking immunosuppressant drugs such as the ones listed below, do not take the herbs alfalfa, astragalus, echinacea, ginseng, licorice root, or the mineral zinc.

  • Cyclosporine
  • Azathioprine
  • Corticosteroids such as prednisone
  • Methotrexate

6) You take herbal laxatives or "dieter's teas" to induce regular bowel movements.

The herbs in these products, called anthranoid laxatives, include:

People can become dependent and use them for weeks, months, or even years at a time. However stimulant laxatives such as senna should not be used for longer than a week without consulting a doctor or other health provider. Prolonged use may cause the bowels to lose the ability to move on their own, and has been linked to chronic diarrhea, muscle weakness, potentially dangerous irregular heart rhythms, and kidney or liver impairment.

Tip Talk with your primary care provider about weaning off laxatives gradually and recovering normal bowel function. The key is to do it slowly—usually in combination with a fiber supplement such as psyllium and adequate fluids.

7) You take herbs and supplements before or after surgery.

Your surgeon needs to know about all herbs and supplements you are taking to prevent complications. Herbs and supplements can interact with anaesthestics or cause excessive bleeding. Columbia University's Department of Plastic Surgery recommends that all herbs and supplements be discontinued 2 to 3 weeks prior to surgery. The herbs they identified as some of the most risky yet commonly used include:

8) You don't tell your doctor about the herbs or supplements you're taking or stop taking medications on your own.

A 1997 study by David Eisenberg, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, discovered that almost half of Americans use some form alternative medicine, only a third of them told their doctors.

Why is this? A survey published in the Journal of Family Practice found patients didn't reveal their use of natural therapies because they thought their doctors wouldn't be interested, were biased against alternative therapies, or didn't know enough about them to comment.

However, there is increasing evidence that not telling could have serious risks to your health. Many herbs interact with common medications and medical procedures and may increase side effects or reduce the effectiveness of your treatment.


  • Type up a list of your current supplements, including the ingredients, ingredient amounts, and how often you take them. Next time you go to your family doctor, bring the list with you and ask that it be added to your chart.
  • You may wish to consider consulting a licensed natural practitioner who can inform you of any interactions.
  • When asking your family doctor a question, frame your questions so they are as specific as possible, such as "I am thinking of trying massage therapy for my neck. Is there any reason why I shouldn't have it?" If communication is difficult, consider whether it's in your best interest to find a family doctor who is easier to talk with and is non-judgmental about your choices.

9) You rely soley on the manufacturer's website for information about safety and side effects.

You should know about potential side effects and safety concerns from an independent resource that is current and is based on scientific research. Some manufacturers will describe their products as natural therefore safe, but some have the potential to cause serious adverse effects if taken improperly.

For example, in a 2003 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, Adrienne Fugh-Berman at George Washington University states that "the use of bust-enhancing products should be discouraged because of lack of evidence for efficacy and long-term safety concerns." And yet these pills are incredibly popular--they're one of the most searched-for herbal pills on the web. Herbs used in many of these breast enhancement pills (e.g. hops, fenugreek) have been found to have potent estrogenic effects and may increase the risk of hormonal cancers such as endometrial and breast cancer. What you need to know about herbal breast enhancement.

10) You don't take your herbs and supplements consistently.

It's important to take herbs and supplements regularly as recommended in order to assess whether or not they are working. A common mistake is to start taking a supplement, skip a day, then two, and then after a while start taking another supplement because you haven't noticed an improvement. If you're not consistent, you'll never know whether it's effective.

Tip Get a day-of-the-week pill organizer online or at your local drug store.

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