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Natural Can Be Dangerous

According to expert botanist and herbalist, Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), an assistant professor in the department of botanical medicine at Bastyr University and president of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Seattle.

Dr. Yarnell emphasizes that overall, when used properly, most herbs have an exceptionally strong safety record, especially when compared with pharmaceutical medicines. But, he says, misuse can create danger even with some seemly benign substances.

For instance, oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate) -- a primary ingredient in many OTC ointments used to soothe sore muscles -- is generally thought of as quite innocent. But products with it are intended for use on small areas of the body only. Unfortunately, people sometimes become overly enthusiastic and rub the ointment all over themselves, which is a major mistake. Using ample portions of these ointments can have serious consequences, especially for children whose livers can't process the active ingredient as well as adults.

Dr. Yarnell says that people have died from too much oil of wintergreen because in excess, it can cause kidney failure, among other problems. Check product labels for ingredients and use caution, he says.


According to Dr. Yarnell, two categories of herbs require an especially high level of care when using -- not so much because of their medicinal effects, but because of the dangers of their form. These are essential oils and certain low-dose herbs.

Essential oils are somewhat of a surprise because they are so commonly used, both for their healing properties and as part of aromatherapy. But that is why Dr. Yarnell is so concerned about them -- they are in many homes today and most people, including therapists and shop owners, have no idea that they are potentially dangerous.

Essential oils are an extremely potent herbal concentrate, hundreds of times more concentrated than crude extracts or herbal teas and very easy to overdose on. Dr. Yarnell feels strongly that essential oils are best used only under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, preferably a naturopathic physician, clinical herbalist or aromatherapist.

A second concern about the oils is that they are highly flammable and people frequently use them around candles, which creates obvious risk. He cautions that these oils should never be left where children can reach them. They smell good, are easy to open (he would like to see all oils have childproof caps) and are appealing to kids who may think they're "yummy." Keep them far out of children's reach.


The second most dangerous form of herbal products are certain low-dose herbs. Low-dose herbs are often called that not because they come only in low doses, but because they are safe only at that level and become toxic at higher levels, depending on the individual. These tend to be well-known and commonly available at health food stores. The most common names of these prescribed low-dose substances are...

  • belladonna (an antispasmotic)
  • Colt's Foot (a demulcent)
  • comfrey (topically used for skin irritation, internally used for fracture and sprains)
  • digitalis (for congestive heart failure and arrhythmias)
  • pennyroyal (for stomach upset )
  • sassafras (for rheumatism)
  • tansy and wormwood (as antiparasitics)

But just as you need the supervision of a doctor when taking a powerful pharmaceutical, you must use low-dose herbs only with the guidance of a trained practitioner.

Dr. Yarnell explains that he uses these herbs successfully and often in his practice, but he has heard some real horror stories about people who decide to strike out on their own with them.

Comfrey, for instance, can be carcinogenic when ingested. However, when used properly and in appropriate levels, it can have minimal risk.

Before the rise of the Internet there wasn't much chance that people could get their hands on these types of low-dose herbs because they were not readily available to the public, says Dr. Yarnell. But now, unfortunately, some Internet sites do advertise them, and so it is especially crucial to be aware of how dangerous they can be and use them only in consultation with a practitioner knowledgeable about these herbs.


Herbals aren't the only natural substances that require caution in use, although they are generally the most potent. Dr. Yarnell adds that other natural substances, too, require careful usage because they can build up in the body and some have acute side effects.

For example, colloidal silver (tiny suspended silver particles) is popular right at the moment as a natural antibiotic, but Dr. Yarnell says that not only is research on it nearly non-existent, it is considered a heavy metal because it has no physiological function in the body, so it tends to become poisonous at lower doses, than say, zinc, copper and iron, which are all necessary to the body in small amounts.

In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has posted a consumer advisory on the Web warning about the danger of colloidal silver (


The key to using natural products safely, then, says Dr. Yarnell, is education -- and a healthy dose of common sense. There is so much information on the Internet, but many sites are bogus and even dangerous. Rather than risk your safety, your best bet is to develop a relationship with a trained naturopathic physician who can prescribe and monitor appropriate usage.

Keep in mind that some drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, have been shown to interact with herbs and supplements. Be sure to notify your doctor of any natural products you are using and likewise, notify your naturopathic physician of all prescription and OTC medications and supplements. What to do: If you are taking any drugs, don't add nutritional supplements or herbal medicine without proper oversight.

If you would like to be more knowledgeable about these products, Dr. Yarnell recommends The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants (DK Adult) by Andrew Chevallier and any of the numerous books concerning herbs by David Hoffmann.


Bottom Line Daily Health News

Natural Can Be Dangerous

  • Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), assistant professor, botanical medicine, Bastyr University (Seattle). He is president of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Seattle




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