Humans have been using herbal medicines for millennia. Every culture on earth has learned to harness the pharmaceuticals mother nature provided.
But what happens when an herb is adopted by people who don’t appreciate its power or potential toxicity?
Ephedra, for example, has been used for over five thousand years by Chinese healers to treat asthma and congestion caused by respiratory infections. Also known as ma huang, Ephedra was almost always combined with other herbs to enhance its effectiveness and limit side effects.
Early in the twentieth century, scientists isolated an active compound from this important Chinese herb. They called it ephedrine, after the botanical name of the plant. For years, ephedrine was prescribed to treat asthma. A related compound, pseudoephedrine, is familiar in over-the-counter decongestants like Sudafed.
But although ephedrine has been largely replaced by better drugs for asthma, the popularity of Ephedra has soared. It is found in dozens of herbal products sold as natural weight-loss aids or energy boosters.
Chinese healers would be astonished to see their herb being used for such purposes. Taking this herb out of its cultural context and combining it with caffeine has put many people at risk of serious reactions.
We have heard from parents whose children have died or experienced life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities while they were taking products containing ephedra. In most cases these young people in their 20s and 30s were healthy and vigorous. They thought that using a “natural” product would be safer than taking a drug.
Another example of unanticipated danger is kava. Throughout the South Pacific, the roots of this native shrub are prized for their usefulness. In Polynesia, kava is considered the “drink of the gods.” It has been used for centuries at ceremonial occasions such as honoring important visitors and gatherings of elders. Because this herb tends to promote a mellow harmonious frame of mind, kava ceremonies are important for settling disputes in many of these cultures.
Tourists visiting Fiji, Vanuatu and other South Sea islands brought back word of kava’s pharmacological action. It wasn’t long before it was being exploited around the world as a natural alternative to Valium and prescription sleeping pills.
This indiscriminate use has apparently had serious repercussions. Kava has been linked to liver damage and banned in several European countries.
Polynesian people are perplexed at reports that their revered kava beverage can be so dangerous in other countries. And Chinese healers insist that Ephedra is safe when used in the traditional way.
Perhaps the most compelling example is tobacco. It is responsible for untold suffering, although Native Americans used this herb ceremonially to promote peace, harmony and healing.
Although herbs may cause harm when they are wrenched from their context and treated without respect, they can be used safely if people are well informed on their pros and cons. To learn more about safe use of medicinal plants, you can consult The People’s Pharmacy Guide to Home and Herbal Remedies in your library or local bookstore.

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