Herbal-Drug Interactions (be sure to scroll for the beneficial interactions)
Since many folks in the U.S. take ongoing prescribed medication, we need to consider the possibility of both positive and negative interactions between herbs and drugs. To be consistent with this objective, we also want consider food in this light, as it too provides medicinal and nutritive benefits (e.g. asparagus is a natural diuretic.) Fortunately when taken in appropriate combinations and with proper timing, there is far more to be gained through taking herbs than to be feared (even when patients are taking pharmaceutical grade medicine.)
The truth is that most all herbal-drug interactions can be avoided, when properly used. This includes both which herbs to take given your drug prescriptions and when to take them.
Regarding "timing", when herbs are taken at least two hours apart from pharmaceuticals, any potential chemical reaction becomes nominal at best (three to four hours is recommended).
Here’s a quick example of "avoiding": Herbs that “dry phlegm” should be used with caution when taking drugs with similar goals, such as anti-histamines. When used cautiously, the combination can actually be beneficial- scroll below to see beneficial ways of actually using them together.
Madison Avenue and Herbs
These herb-drug interactions don't just apply for those sold by your local acupuncturists, horticulturists and hippies. This applies to all herbs, including those that many buy from their drugstores and even their grocers- often without making the connection that they are ingesting medicinal herbs. These may come in the form of herbal teas, "Airborne" type products, "health drinks/ energy drinks" and a plethora of other shape, sizes and chemical states. Just look for the shiny packaging and you'll see them everywhere!
Cumadin / Warfarin and their reactive nature with food
Despite a lack of statistically significant interactions with herbs, both the fickle nature of cumadin/warfarin and their impact on cardiac conditions leads herbalists to avoid adding herbs to the care of patients already "on" these powerful drugs . An important question worth asking is, "If we were to start cardiac care with herbal remedies, before the condition became severe enough to warrant the use of such highly reactive drugs (with food), how many patients would avoid the risks associated with their use?"
For now, there doesn't appear to be a definitive answer to this question; nevertheless, I am confident that the result would be: notably less need for these distinctly volatile drugs. These aggressive blood thinners are highly beneficial, when required. The problem with our current method is that they become required far too often.
Beneficial Herbal-Drug Interactions
Again, since pharmaceutical and over the counter drugs are such a big part of our health system, it is just as important to focus on the positive herb-drug interactions, as it is on potential concerns (measure the reward, not only the risk). Ignoring these abundant combinations is truly the equivalent of crossing the street after looking just one way.
In particular, we need to start taking advantage of herbs that mitigate harsh side effects of prescription and over the counter drugs e.g. many prescription drugs have side effects of dry skin, rashes and hives. Well, there are plants that moisten the skin and clear rashes and eruptions. Sound like a good combo? You bet it does!
Remember the caution mentioned above, of using drying herbs with anti-histamines? Well there are herbs that can be used with anti-histamines that reduce the likelihood of any over-drying, which can lead to respiratory infection. This is another great use of combining herbs with western medicine. You may have further guessed that those same herbs help resolve chronic phlegm congestion of the sinus or chest. If so, you are right.
Another way to use herbs in concert with drugs is by choosing herbs with similar healing properties to your prescription meds, for the purpose of weaning off of the pharmaceutical medication, when appropriate. To do so, the herbal dose is slowly increased as the pharmaceutical dose slowly decreases (taken at least 2 hours apart). Naturally, you will want to consult with your medical doctor before making any changes to your prescriptions. In more severe cases, you will want to see your doctor regularly to help monitor these changes and avoid incurring any increased risk.
Combinations and Formulas
The day will come when combining herbs with drugs is the more typical protocol and it can’t come soon enough. In fact, the Chinese medical way to take herbs is more often via formula's of several herbs rather than single herbs. This technique provides the patient with the desired corrective action while also accounting for any potential concerns. I'll use Ginseng to illustrate this point, as it is a commonly used energy tonic that is a healthy substitute for coffee- yet not completely free of side effects.
When used for prolonged periods of time, Ginseng can be "cloying" and therefore disruptive for patients with sensitive stomachs. Bloating and nausea would be the most likely symptoms of herbal cloying, but other discomforts such as heartburn, GERD and belching could also result. For this reason, Ginseng is often accompanied by herbs that reduce the likelihood of this overly saccharine feeling, such as poria root, ginger/cinnamon and licorice.
We will be truly living healthier lives when the formula for better health returns to that of my grandparents generation- when what we ingest comes first. Clean air and water, a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and rest, supported by herbal nutrition and other holistic treatments and then followed by pharmaceutical drugs and surgical procedures is the better recipe for good health. Begin by adding more greens in your homes and bodies and by swapping out the Claritin for a plant that grows in your own backyard- ask me about "plantain"!
Robert Thompson, Lic. Ac., MAOM