Well..... it depends.
You might be surprised to hear that my answer to the question is not a resounding YES! I routinely prescribe herbal medicines. I know how effective they can be for a wide variety of health conditions. And in the right circumstance, herbal medicines are very safe. But safety depends on many factors so the answer is not always straightforward. Let me explain.
The safety (and efficacy) of any herbal medicine depends on many different factors.
The right plant
For predictable safety an herbal medicine must contain the right plant that has been correctly identified. For example there are many different species of Echinacea, only a few of them have been studied for their medicinal effect and safety. Herbalist will most often use Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpura. To be sure you know what you are taking the bottle must state the full botanical name
The right plant part
Using Echinacea again as an example, the most potent medicinal part of this plant is the root for Echinacea angustifolia and the flowering tops for Echinacea purpura. The plant part should be stated on the label. If that information is not there, you really have no idea of what you are taking.
Growing Harvesting and Storage conditions
These all affect the chemical constituents of the plants that are used in medicines. The best quality herbal medicines pay attention to getting this right. Lower quality supplement manufactures may accept raw materials that haven’t been grown under the right conditions, harvested at the right time and stored correctly to preserve vital plant chemicals. It makes for a cheap product that is unlikely to have the therapeutic effect you are expecting.
Method of preparation
Herbs can be prepared and dosed as fresh herbs, as powders, teas, decoctions, or as tinctures prepared by extracting the active ingredients using solvents such as water, alcohol or glycerin. The preparation method can change the potency of the medicine and the active constituents that are present in the finished product. This affects its level of safety.
Manufactures of Good quality herbal products will analyze raw material and finished products for key chemicals to ensure safety and efficacy of their products
Contaminants and Stability
In Australia we are pretty lucky that there are regulations in place to ensure that commercially available products meet strict manufacturing criteria. Raw materials must be checked for contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals. The finished product must be free from moulds and bacteria and stable up until the use by date. Products are routinely check to monitor that what is on the label is actually in the product and nothing else. Products sourced from overseas may not be manufactured under the same regulations.
The dose and duration of use
Like anything we put into our bodies the dose is important. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous especially if taken over extended periods of time. Herbal medicines are still medicines and must be dosed appropriately.
This is a big one to consider. Many herbs will interact with pharmaceutical medications. It can be safe to combine both but you really need to know what you are doing and in some circumstances herbal medicines are contraindicated. If you are taking pharmaceuticals it would be wise to check with a qualified herbalist before using herbal medicines.
Pregnancy and Lactation
Special consideration around safety is always needed in pregnancy and lactation. There are many herbs that can be used and many that are not safe here. Many are best avoided as we just don’t have clear evidence to support safe use. To keep mothers and babies safe, self-prescribing is not recommended
The question of safety is complex.
You can feel confident harnessing the health giving effects of herbs by using them in your cooking. Teas are quite gentle, delivering therapeutic effect at reasonably low doses with a high degree of safety. More concentrated forms of herbal medicines such as tablet capsules and tinctures require more caution. A qualified herbalist can help you to find a good quality supplement that is safe for your unique circumstances.