Herb Toxicity

While the internet is a wonderful tool for access to information (and therefore empowerment through education!), online sources of information should always be regarded with utmost discernment. With herbs in particular, you will frequently note that the first five or six search results returned are mainstream health or medical sites with a vested interest in pharmaceuticals—not natural remedies. Even sites created or referenced by herbalists can be replete with misinformation, often copy/pasted from mainstream "health" sites or other sources perpetuating outdated traditional usage information.

We receive many inquiries about so-called "toxic herbs" and would like to shed some light on the subject. There are three main factors to consider—the percentage/ratio of the herb in a formulation, the nature and action of the herbs themselves, and finally the methods and credibility of studies carried out.

Many of the so-called "toxic" herbs have deep actions, but they also have buffers that help protect the body. When you approach doses that are more than our body can handle, you'll experience some sort of purging (usually nausea/vomiting but there can be other ways as well). This is the protective constituents of the herbs at work—they are forcing your body to purge so that you do not take in more than your body can handle. To someone looking at the situation superficially and not understanding how herbs work, this appears to be the herb poisoning you, because it made you vomit (so obviously it can't be good for you, right?). But remember, a purgative effect is not always a bad thing! Lobelia is one such misunderstood herb…while it can be considered toxic when taken in large doses, if you're taking the whole herb you will ALWAYS vomit before you can ingest enough to poison yourself. In herbology, we use lobelia when one cannot breathe as this causes one to vomit, which causes a clearing of the lung pathways so the individual can breathe.

The second factor is the percentage/ratio, this comes into play if you're taking a formula as opposed to a single herb. In combination formulas like ours, there are many herbs mixed together for their synergistic effects. When you look at a formula where poke root, for example, is one of 10 ingredients…the poke root is likely something like 1/10thof the formula. Our formula ratios are proprietary and cannot be disclosed, but poke root specifically is never more than a small fraction of the formula. So especially with a combination formula, the odds of ingesting enough poke root (or any other supposedly "toxic" herb) to do any "harm" to the body or constitute an "overdose" or "too much" is all but impossible. Additionally, when combined the herbs have a synergistic effect—meaning they work together to produce a result where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This extends to the protective nature of the herbs as well, so those protective buffers increase exponentially in combination formulas as well.

It's important to remember in herbology that many herbs have shown adverse effects when taken in large doses, but actually have a strengthening or tonic action when taken at lower doses.

Finally, there are the "studies show" warnings. While scientific studies are the gold standard of proven truth in mainstream medicine, the fact of the matter is that literally anyone can purchase a study. Likewise, the study's outcome is a direct reflection of the study's design—and not all studies are created equally—or well!

In every single case of a "scientific" study showing that an herb is toxic or causes organ damage, the whole herb itself was not used. Instead, isolates of specific parts of the herb were used—the problem with this practice is that when you isolate certain substances the protective constituents are stripped off. When using whole herbs (and our formulas are 100% whole herbs, never isolated constituents) the protective buffers are left intact and the herbs function the way they are meant to.

The biggest scam the allopathic/pharmaceutical companies use to instill fear about botanicals is the "active principle" in the specific herb. The problem here is that pharmaceuticals use only the active principle and increase its potency. Active principles are always buffered in botanicals with synergistic chemistry.

Even when whole herbs are used in studies, in many cases (especially animal studies), the amount of the herb used is nowhere near anything a human would be consuming. Amounts of herbs far in excess of even "medicinal doses" are used—often anywhere from 10 to 30 or even 50 percent of the animals' total diet. Think about how much you consume in a day and imagine 10% or more of that being one herb—the idea of anyone consuming that much of an herb for any length of time is rather ridiculous!  And let's not forget that in animal studies, the subject animals are almost always rats (sometimes rabbits), who are quite different physiologically from humans. Yet recommendations for human use are being based upon how excessive doses of herbs effected a completely different species.

Comfrey is a great example of this. It is commonly believed that comfrey is linked to hepatoxicity (causing damage to the liver), and many studies support this. However, these studies are conducted as described above—on animals using excessive doses. The Botanical Safety Handbook actually states the following under Human Pharmacological Studies for Comfrey:

"No evidence of liver damage was found in regular consumers of comfrey leaf. Liver function tests showed slightly elevated levels of bilirubin in two patients and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) in one patient. Most volunteers (72%) had used comfrey for 1 to 10 years (mean intake 3.0 g dry leaf/per day); 17% used it for 11 to 20 years (mean intake 2.6 g dry leaf/per day); and 10% used it for 21 to 30 years (mean intake 11 g dry leaf/day). The estimated intake of pyrrolizidine alkaloids was 0.015 to 0.15 mg/kg daily [Anderson and McLean 1989]."

Let's put this into perspective. Three sets of volunteers used comfrey internally daily, at an average rate of:

  • 3 grams per day for 1 to 10 years (3 grams equates to almost seven of our veggie capsules)
  • 6 grams a day for 11 to 20 (2.6 grams is about six veggie capsules)
  • 11 grams per day for 21-30 years (11 grams equates to TWENTY FOUR veggie capsules per day).

This begs the question that given these levels of use in humans for these lengths of time, with no evidence of liver damage, why is such a wonderfully beneficial herb like comfrey contraindicated for internal use in the vast majority of sources available?

While the choice is always yours and you should never take something that concerns you or makes you uncomfortable, we hope this sheds some light on how the herbs/formulas function and allows you to take your herbal formulas with peace of mind and confidence. This is absolutely no reason to be fearful or apprehensive of herbs, even purportedly toxic ones. Educate yourself or work with a knowledgeable herbalist, and always use common sense and appropriate dosing.