Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: Is it safe to take herbal medicine?

12 comments
Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Hi Sandra, I'm a sportsperson and I like using natural products to support my recovery, for inflammation and to improve my stamina. The issue is, I have to undergo regular drug testing for my sport. Is it safe to take herbal medicine?
Jason, Mt Eden

Hi Jason, I don't have an easy or straightforward answer to this question. However, there are a few points that you should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to use herbal medicine to support performance or recovery.

Firstly, the quality of the product is of utmost importance. Drug Free NZ report that a significant number of positive test results are due to prohibited substances being added to supplements. A study by the International Olympic Committee found that 15 per cent of 600 supplements tested had steroids or related compounds added that were not listed on the label. It is well known that illegal adulteration of dietary supplements, as well as herbal medicines, have occurred by obscure companies who dogged regulations and it is distressing for the majority of companies who do follow due process and for the athletes that are caught by the fraudulent behaviour of such companies.

You need to be sure that a product you use is from a reputable company and contains only what it says on the label and nothing else. With regard to herbal products, this is why registered herbalists exercise so much caution in sourcing their medicinal plants. The best herbal companies know their suppliers and each batch will undergo a variety of steps to confirm the source material. Do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions before deciding on a particular brand or product.

The risks of ingesting prohibited ingredients also decrease when plants are used in their original form, such as using crude herbs as medicinal tea or adding anti-inflammatory herbs and spices daily to your food. You get what you see! The herb Nettle for example, has proven anti-inflammatory action and can help with the removal of water soluble waste and uric acid from the tissues. Many athletes report that muscle pain reduces and recovery is hastened by regularly consuming Nettle tea, particularly post-workouts. Arnica and Comfrey are traditionally used both externally and internally to reduce inflammation, pain and tissue recovery, and their anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects have been confirmed as equivalent in clinical trials when compared with ibuprofen or Diclofenac (or branded as Voltaren).

Hawthorn supports blood circulation and oxygenation, Thyme strengthens lung function and Green Tea and Yerba Mate contain naturally occurring energy increasing compounds that are permitted.

Taking medicinal remedies in their traditional form rather than taking highly concentrated or isolated extracts, lowers your risk of exposure to unwanted substances. If you're intent on using medicinal plants to support yourself, I would suggest you seek out a registered health professional with experience of working with sportspeople to help guide you.

Hi Sandra, I've recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure and my doctor has prescribed medication to keep it under control. Is there anything else I can do to stop it getting worse?
John, Titahi Bay

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Our heart works tirelessly over our lifetime to deliver oxygen and vital nutrients to cells throughout the body. It's obvious that anything we can do to support the heart to carry out its essential functions and reduce the likelihood of under-functioning will be a wise investment in our health and longevity.

Research from the Univeristy of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council revealed lifestyle choices including regular exercise, reduced alcohol intake, not smoking and eating enough fruits and vegetables can extend the lifespan by up to 14 years. The researchers noted the most dramatic benefits of these lifestyle factors was a decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you sense that some of these areas need work, now would be the time to put a plan together to instigate lifestyle change.

Plant medicine can also significantly improve heart function, both in a preventative capacity, but also when heart function has begun to deviate from the norm, such as in high blood pressure (hypertension).

Medicinal herbs that are supported with clinical evidence include Hawthorn, a well-studied herb that has cardio-protective actions and improves heart rhythm. It has shown benefit in the treatment of hypertension, angina pectoris, tachycardia and atherosclerosis. It is an extremely safe herb when taken as prescribed, and several studies have shown that it can be safely used alongside medication as part of an integrated treatment plan. When combined with Passionflower, it was shown to improve heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol levels in patients with Class II heart failure.

Two other medicinal plants of note for the heart include Motherwort and Lemon Balm. Both have relaxing and anti-spasmodic effects on heart tissue, improving irregular heartbeat and palpitations. They are particularly useful when anxiety or nervousness is present alongside a heart condition.

I like to blend the above plants in a medicinal tea, to be taken at a dose of three cups per day (1g per dose). Drinking your medicine as a tea is a great alternative to a pill, especially if you're already taking pharmaceutical medication for your condition. This is a safe and effective way to leverage the best of nature's medicines for the heart.

References
Geyer, et al. (2004). Analysis of non-hormonal nutritional supplements for anabolic-androgenic steroids - results of an international study. Int J Sports Med, 25(2): 124-129.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14986195

Gulcin, I., Kufrevioglu, O. I., Oktay, M., & Buyukokuroglu, M. E. (2004). Antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiulcer and analgesic activities of nettle (Urtica dioica L.). Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 90(2-3), 205-215. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2003.09.028

Khaw, et al. (2008). Combined Impact of Health Behaviours and Mortality in Men and Women: The EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population Study. PLoS Med 5(3): e70. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0050070

Predel, H. G., Giannetti, B., Koll, R., Bulitta, M., & Staiger, C. (2005). Efficacy of a Comfrey root extract ointment in comparison to a Diclofenac gel in the treatment of ankle distortions: Results of an observer-blind, randomized, multicenter study. Phytomedicine, 12(10), 707-714. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2005.06.001

Walker, A. F., Marakis, G., Simpson, E., Hope, J. L., Robinson, P. A., Hassanein, M., & Simpson, H. C. (2006). Hypotensive effects of hawthorn for patients with diabetes taking prescription drugs: a randomised controlled trial. British Journal of General Practice, 56(527), 437-443.

Walker, A. F., Marakis, G., Morris, A. P., Robinson, P. A. (2002). Promising hypotensive effect of Hawthorn extract: a randomised double-blind pilot study of mild, essential hypertension. Phytotherapy Research, 16(1):48-54.

Widrig, R., Suter, A., Saller, R., & Melzer, J. (2007). Choosing between NSAID and arnica for topical treatment of hand osteoarthritis in a randomised, double-blind study. Rheumatology International, 27(6), 585-591.

Zapatero, J. (1999). Selections from current literature: effects of Hawthorn on the cardiovascular system. Family Practice, 16 (5): 534-538. doi: 10.1093/fampra/16.5.534

- NZ Herald

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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