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Myths and Facts You Need to Know about Herbal Remedies

Herbal Medical Shop

Many devotees of herbs often have a common misconception that herbal remedies are safe and don't cause any side effects. But the truth is they carry as same health risks as the modern medicine and can cause considerable harm.

In fact, the pitfalls of using herbal remedies are many, and there are a lot of myths to beware of! So if you wish to try alternatives to modern medicines, it’s important that you know all the facts.

Accordingly, in this article, I want to discuss some of the common misconceptions about herbal medicines.

Herbal medicines are natural so can’t be harmful! Is that so?

Well, it’s true they’re from nature, but that doesn't simply mean they are all harmless and safe. All the fruits and vegetables we eat come from nature, but does this mean they can’t cause problems to our body. Of course, they certainly can! Even an onion can upset your stomach if you eat more of it.

Many of our modern drugs are derived from medicinal plants. If herbal medicine can’t cause any harm because of having natural substances, isn’t it strange that those same substances when isolated and/or synthesized are becoming harmful.

Herbs have no side effects! Really?

No offence, but it’s a blatant lie that manufacturers of these remedies publicize to promote their products. Of course, herbs can cause serious side effects. In fact, a majority of experienced practitioners are concerned about some of the serious adverse effects (e.g. contact dermatitis, colon perforation, hepatotoxicity, coma and death) of herbal preparations [1].

Check out the below table to see a list of common herbs with known side effects.

Table 1. Some Common Herbs with Known Adverse Effects.

Common Name Side Effects
Aloe vera Potentially carcinogenic; may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and severe allergic reactions
Ginseng Most commonly, trouble sleeping and headache; less commonly, vaginal bleeding, breast pain, allergic reactions and other side effects
Ginkgo biloba Severe side effect: bleeding; minor side effects: stomach upset, constipation, dizziness, headache, increased heart rate and allergic reactions
St. John's wort Photosensitivity or severe sunburn (if taken in in large doses); other common side effects include trouble sleeping, dry mouth, gastrointestinal disturbances, fatigue, anxiety, headache, dizziness and allergic reactions
Kava Liver damage, sedation, symptoms of tardive dyskinesia, acute dystonic reaction and severe allergic reactions
Ephedra Hypertension, abnormal heart rhythm, heart attack, trouble sleeping, headache, anxiety, palpitations and seizure

The reason why you don’t know about these side effects is regulatory incompetence! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other major regulatory authorities worldwide, do not require any disclosure of adverse effects on the monograph of herbal products. Thus, manufacturers have no obligation to inform consumers about the possible side effects associated with their products [1, 2].

Furthermore, herbal remedies are not regulated with the same scientific rigor required of modern medicines. The FDA does not regulate these products for purity and potency [2]. Hence, there is no guarantee that the product you’ve bought contains exactly what’s listed on the label. It can be tainted with impurities (e.g. pesticides, germs or toxic metals), or made of substances that aren’t written on the label at all.

Herbal products aren’t drugs! So what are they?

Well, I believe it’s a big regulatory flaw that the FDA and other agencies still consider herbal products as dietary supplements rather than drugs. This means manufacturers don’t need to provide any evidence of safety and efficacy before putting their products on the market, as they are not subjected to the approval process by the regulatory authorities. They only need to prove that their products are safe for human consumption. Thus, manufacturers have no liability to show any proof in support for what they claim [3, 4].

Manufacturers are also allowed to make any statement they wish about the purported effect and health benefits of a certain herb as long as they add the disclaimer, "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease" [2].

This is mindboggling! While a number of herbal products are known to cause drug-like effects and have serious adverse reactions, they are allowed over-the-counter (OTC) to consumers without being regulated or having drug status. In fact, if an herb is found to be toxic, it doesn’t ensure that the herb will be removed from the market, because the FDA often issues only a warning [3]. This means the OTC sale of that herb will not be restricted.

Herbal remedies do not interact with modern medicine! How?

This is a scary myth. There are some really serious interactions to watch out for. Numerous studies have shown that a number of herbal products can interact with other drugs, herbs or foods [4, 5, 6]. It is also reported that the herb-drug interactions can alter the efficacy and bioavailability of the prescription drugs [2, 4].

I want to give you one good example on this. Are you familiar with statins? Some of the names you may recognize are lipitor and crestor. In the herbal world, red yeast rice is also considered a statin.

The interaction comes through goldenseal, an herb often used as an immune stimulant. It's not best for that purpose, but is often bundled with Echinacea, which is also used to help boost the immune system. If statins and goldenseal are taken together, some serious muscle damage is likely to occur and renal failure is possible. This may be due to the berberine found in goldenseal.

Final Thoughts

Now don't get me wrong. This post isn't written to demotivate people about herbal remedies, rather it is to dispel some of the common myths surrounding the medical system.

I'm not an herb hater; personally, I believe herbs can be a wonderful alternative to our mainstream medical treatments, as they have clearly been used for thousands of years.

However, my point is there must be some validity to their safety, potency and efficacy. Consumers must be informed about the possible side effects of the product they’re buying. In addition, herbs that are known to be toxic should be restricted for OTC sales.


  1. Thornfeldt C. Cosmeceuticals containing herbs: fact, fiction, and future. Dermatologic Surgery. 2005 Jul 1;31(s1):873-81.
  2. Cupp MJ. Herbal remedies: adverse effects and drug interactions. American family physician. 1999 Mar 1;59(5):1239.
  3. Barrett S. The herbal minefield. Quackwatch Web Site. 2000 Jun 22.
  4. Elvin-Lewis M. Should we be concerned about herbal remedies. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2001 May 31;75(2):141-64.
  5. Posadzki P, Watson LK, Ernst E. Adverse effects of herbal medicines: an overview of systematic reviews. Clinical medicine. 2013 Feb 1;13(1):7-12.
  6. Messina BA. Herbal supplements: facts and myths—talking to your patients about herbal supplements. Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing. 2006 Aug 31;21(4):268-78.

⚠️ Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice.