The Safety of Chinese Herbs

Back in the 90’s (if you can remember that far back) there were a few diet pills on the market that contained very strong herbal extracts. These pills were sold over the counter to help people with weight loss and body building. They curbed your appetite, gave you a burst of energy, and stimulated your metabolism. While they helped a number of people, others pushed it too far and reported kidney problems, and even death in a few cases. 

There Was Drama

These pills contained the herbal extracts of aristolochic acid and ephedra, and after the health problems and deaths, these 2 ingredients were banned by the FDA. And because these two chemical constituents are found in certain Chinese herbs, the whole practice of Chinese Herbal Medicine got dragged through the dirt.

This had led to a bit of fear and hesitation around the use of Chinese herbs. And honestly, some of this fear is good. There are plants used for medicinal purposes that are very strong, and they shouldn’t be used without supervision.

In addition, we have to be doubly careful if we’re talking about herbs that are imported from China and other countries with less strict growing regulations. There are plants being grown with dangerous pesticides, or that contain heavy metals. There’s also the possibility of herbs being misidentified, so that the herb you’re taking isn’t the plant you think it is.

It’s no wonder Western cultures have shied away from using these herbs in the last few decades!

Safety IS Important

 All of this being said, Chinese herbs are powerful medicine, and in the right hands can be extremely effective at treating numerous conditions, without the same kind of side effects that come from Western medications. 

And this is why I decided to continue my training and become an herbalist. This stuff can really help people. But it’s important to take certain precautions.

1.    Rely on a trained herbalist to recommend a formula for you. 

Chinese medicine relies on its own system of diagnosis and treatment that is separate from your Western medicine diagnosis. This is why you can’t just Google your symptoms and find the “right” herb to treat it effectively. A trained herbalist will do a thorough intake, asking you tons of questions about your primary concern as well as your life and health in general. They might take your pulse, look at your tongue, or feel your abdomen. Your herbalist will use all of this information to formulate a combination of herbs that is personalized to you.

As you continue to take your herbs, you will find that some of your symptoms will start to clear up, and maybe other issues that you’ve had start to come to the forefront. Your herbalist can then modify the formula to address your current needs, and keep adding and subtracting herbs along the way until you get to the point where you don’t need them anymore.

2.    Take your herbs as directed.

Remember those ephedra cases from the 90’s? All those negative side effects came about because the pills weren’t taken as directed. Too much (or too little) medicine won’t have the desired outcome. And if you’ve ever taken antibiotics, you know that you need to take them for a prescribed length of time for them to work properly.

3.    Source your herbs well.

This is another reason to see an herbalist as opposed to ordering your herbs online. There are many reputable companies (including Evergreen, the company I use) that put each batch of herbs through rigorous testing. Many of these companies only sell to licensed practitioners.

Tests are done to be certain that the plant is the correct one, and that it contains high amounts of therapeutic chemical constituents. This tells us whether or not the herbs will be effective. More tests are done to make sure the plants are free of pesticides, heavy metals, molds, yeasts and toxins.

If you are looking for herbs on your own, be sure to do thorough research into any company you source herbs from. Make sure the company has its own rigorous testing in place. Be extra vigilant with ordering herbs from online retailers like Amazon.

Herb Safety vs. Medication Safety

Western medications, both over the counter and prescription, are very strong because they are made of isolated chemical compounds. The same thing goes for herbal extracts. Things like ephedra and aristolochic acid come from plants, but when they’re taken in isolation from the rest of the plant, they become harsher and more potent.

On the other hand, whole plant medicine is safer because it contains many chemical constituents working together in a package that nature created. Tannins, alkaloids, phenols, terpenes, flavonoids and others are combined in perfect proportions to do what they were meant to do. You may have heard of the “entourage effect” when talking about cannabis products like CBD and hemp oil. Research has found that these products actually work better when all the plant compounds are extracted together, as opposed to an isolate of CBD only.

In addition, let’s not forget that before we had the ability to synthesize artificial compounds or extract them in a lab, herbs were the only medicine we had. This means that there are THOUSANDS of years of empirical evidence for plant medicine. Humans have been using this stuff forever, and we have a lot of knowledge built up about how to do that. Western drugs, on the other hand, have only a few hundred years of use, and that’s for some of the oldest ones in existence. Others only have a few years of use under their belt.  That may not be enough time to know what the long-term effects are. In fact, even the strongest, most “toxic” herbs we use have less negative effect on the body than your average innocuous prescription.

Many conventional doctors in the West have doubts about taking herbs and prescription meds at the same time. But this is because they don’t know enough about herbs and play it safe just in case. But in China and other Asian countries, herbs and medications are used together all the time. Herbs are used to mitigate side effects of medications, to allow for a lower dose of drugs so that there’s less toxic burden on the liver and kidneys, and even to avoid antibiotic resistance. However, there is a caveat. There are certain herbs that you don’t want to take if you’re on blood thinners, and other herbs that can mess with blood sugar medications. Another reason to do your research and to see a licensed herbalist.

Chinese herbal medicine is practiced very safely all over the world, and has been for many centuries. As long as you know what to watch out for, there’s no reason not to experience the benefits of using plant medicine to improve your health.


Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture & Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.