Over the years, I have met thousands of people who want to learn about using herbs for health instead of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Herbs are fundamentally different than drugs. Most drugs are isolated single chemicals designed to target specific areas in the body to produce a measurable action. Plants, on the other hand, contain an extremely complex array of chemicals that affect and benefit the body in multiple ways.
A simple illustration is to compare penicillin and garlic. Penicillin is a single unique antibacterial chemical that bacteria have figured out how to resist, because it’s a single compound. Garlic contains several antibacterial chemicals, including bacteria-busting sulfur compounds, essential oils, and resins, along with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The complexity of garlic outsmarts bacteria, demonstrating why garlic has been used as an antibiotic since ancient times.
Herbs are awesome, and tend to be safer than drugs, and fortunately, many health issues can be managed with a combination of herbs and dietary changes. However, there are also serious health conditions that can only be managed with prescription medication. An example is a person with type I diabetes, who has to take insulin for the rest of their lives because their bodies can’t produce insulin naturally. This person can use herbs to support their health in other ways, but they won’t be able to replace insulin with herbs.
Fun fact: the word “drug” originates from an old (14th century-ish) Anglo-French word “drogge”, a substance used as a medicine or cure, usually referring to dried herbs and spices.
So here is what you need to know.
Herbs are more like food than drugs
- Safe, tonic herbs like nettles and dandelion contain loads of vitamins and minerals which add an extra nutritional boost to your diet
- The effects of herbs can be more general and less targeted than drugs. This means you may end up benefiting in unexpected ways, such as better digestion, clearer skin, and lower stress levels
- It might take a little while to see the results of your efforts, so plan on sticking with an herbal regimen for one to three months before deciding if it’s working or not.
- Not every herb works for every person or situation. There may be a trial and error period to learn what herbs will work best for you
Things you will have to do differently
- Be prepared to take herbs two to four times per day in order to see the same results as a single daily dose of a prescription drug
- Become more attentive to your body and its subtle signals. You will become more attuned to your body with practice, which takes time
- You will have to pay out-of-pocket for herbal products, as they aren’t covered by insurance
- Create new habits to incorporate your herbs into your daily rhythm
- You will need to purchase brewing accessories for your herbal teas
- Instead of just swallowing a pill, you might need to mix, shake, stir, or brew up your herbs
If you’re taking prescription medication, PROCEED WITH CAUTION
- Although the herb might be perfectly safe on its own, it might make the effects of the drug too strong. Rule of thumb: if you’re taking a drug for a condition, don’t take an herb that does the same thing
- If you’re taking a medication to manage a serious disease, be aware that herbs that strengthen or stimulate the liver can cause your body to metabolize the medication too rapidly and put your health at risk
- If you are committed to getting off a non-critical medication, enlist your physician to help you reduce the dosage safely and not put your health at risk. If you’re not sure what the risks are, ask your doctor and/or your pharmacist, not the internet
If you’re not under a physician’s care and are not taking medication, you can get started using safe and simple herbs right away. The most common ways to use herbs are teas, tinctures, or in capsules. Some people also like to use powdered herbs.
Teas are a great way to start using herbs. They are gentle but effective. A tea habit is one of the healthiest habits to adopt. There’s a little bit of a learning curve when you first get started with tea, as you have to invest in some type of brewing accessory. There are a few drawbacks to consider before diving in to the world of tea:
- If you drink too much tea at night, a full bladder might interrupt your sleep
- Be patient with the learning curve that comes with properly brewing tea. Under-brewed teas might not contain enough of the medicinal compounds that you need. Over-brewed teas might become bitter or unpleasant to drink
Herbal capsules are simple and convenient. There is no preparation or brewing involved, and you don’t have to deal with unpleasant flavors. Just pop them in your mouth and wash it down with a little water. Unfortunately, there are a few downsides of using capsules, such as:
- A person with poor digestion might have a hard time absorbing the active compounds in the herbs
- You miss out on tasting certain strong flavors that send a signal to the brain to trigger responses that in turn stimulate the healing process
- It takes 30 to 45 minutes to feel the effects of an encapsulated blend, which is fine if you’re taking herbs to support bone density, but not fine if you’re trying to catch some z’s
- If you have a hard time swallowing pills, you might also have a hard time swallowing herbal capsules
Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts that are taken by the drop rather than by the cup. These herbal extracts are prepared by soaking medicinal herbs in a food-grade alcohol like vodka or brandy for six weeks then straining out the herbs. The alcohol in the tincture serves three functions:
- Alcohol is effective at extracting a wide spectrum of medicinal compounds from herbs
- It preserves the tincture for approximately four years
- The alcohol drives the medicine into the body, helping you to absorb the benefits rapidly
The actual amount of alcohol that you ingest is insignificant; 30 drops of tincture has about as much alcohol as a ripe banana.
Pro tip: add your herbal tincture to a cup of hot tea. The hot water will evaporate some of the alcohol, and any intense flavors will be greatly diluted.
Because tinctures are so concentrated, small amounts (5 to 30 drops) can be as effective as a cup of tea. However, people with a history of alcohol abuse should avoid using tinctures, and opt for tea or capsules instead.
Lastly, you can simply add powdered herbs to your smoothie or protein shake, or stir into a cup of yogurt or oatmeal. Mild-flavored herbs work best for this, but smoothies can hide unpleasant flavors pretty well. Astragalus powder is a perfect example of a safe and mild herb with loads of benefits.
I hope this was helpful. Let us know what you think in the comments below!
*This information has not been evaluated by the FDA, and is not intended to diagnose or cure a medical issue, or replace professional medical care. If you are pregnant or nursing, are under the care of a physician, or on prescription medication, talk to your health care provider before making any changes to your diet or routine.