In this article you will learn:
A little about herbs and how to use them properly
Why herbs must be used judiciously, even though they're natural
Some great herbs to incorporate that are relatively safe
It is true that herbs and herbal medicine can be a powerful intervention for healing a wide variety of ailments. Although I've had my fair share of experience with them through things like TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) or Ayurveda, or just plain old biohacking adventures, overall herbs are not necessarily part of The 5 Pillars of Optimal Health such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants and probiotics.
Herbs are Nature’s medications, and while they can have powerful effects, this doesn’t always mean a good thing. Remember that the best approach is to find the simplest, highest reward for the least amount of risk. It's better to care more about long-term, sustainable habits rather than periodic, short bursts of random interventions.
Herbs for the most part do not work with all of these considerations. There are a few that can be used long term, but even those lack longitudinal studies and have certain downsides. Rhodiola for example, is a well-known herb in the class of adaptogens, or herbs that regulate processes in your body, whether they are too high or too low.
Particularly, it’s great for stress and Burnout. It is generally well tolerated, but it can compete for detoxification and therefore interact with lots of medications in potentially dangerous ways.(1) Ashwagandha, an amazing herb for a variety of conditions and one that I highlight in my sleep interventions article, is a great adaptogen but can increase thyroid hormones or interact with certain drugs of diabetes, blood
pressure or for the immune system.(2)
Now does all this mean you should avoid herbs? Not at all. In fact, a few of the
supplements in my Top Picks have some herbs in them and most herbs are great for
short-term or intermittent use. While the amounts in these products are low and are often gentler herbs with little risk, the point is that overall herbs require much more thinking and planning because they have powerful effects.
If you are taking medications like blood thinners, seizure medication, heavy antibiotics, autoimmune medication, anti-depressants or anything relatively “serious,” herbs may cause unpleasant or dangerous interactions. Because they are essentially Nature’s medications, herbs compete for detoxification in your liver with man-made medications. Your CYP gene family, the one responsible for detoxification and processing drugs in the liver, can be affected by herbs and therefore lead to unsafe amounts of the other drugs you’re taking because they aren’t getting metabolized .
If you have SNPs in these various genes (most likely), certain ones can lead to even more
pronounced reactions. It’s not something to fuck around with, and despite their beneficial effects as a natural therapy there are no “essential herbs” in our biochemistry like there are essential amino acids or fatty acids.
You do not need herbs like you do these other building blocks, although many can be useful where other interventions have failed.
In general, here are a few guidelines to help you make informed choices when considering using any herb or herbal product:
— Make sure the herbs are organic or equivalent, as many plants soak up toxins. Most tea, for example, has an affinity for aluminum.(3)
— Make sure you know the amount of active component and what type you’re getting. An example are withanolides with ashwagandha. If a product lists just “ashwagandha” on the back without giving you the active component amount (which is responsible for most of the effects), it is difficult to evaluate for potency. Also, herbs have different active components and some products may offer only one. Magnolia bark has both honokiol and magnolol as an example, and you can purchase both or either separately because they have slightly different effects.
— Look up the dosage used in studies and understand what the therapeutic range for an herb is. Sometimes you may need more to do the trick, but you also do not want
to overdo it. Also, different conditions may need more or less to create results, and the
only way to really know these things is by doing your due diligence.
— Understand the drug and supplement interactions thoroughly, especially if you are using more than one herb at a time. A great place to check interactions is: www.drugs.com
— Understand the treatment window. Some herbs can be used for longer periods of time while others are contraindicated for long-term use. Take regular breaks even with the long-term herbs (like 4 weeks on 1 week off as an example) and in general don’t just use something because a sexy biohacking ad told you it has lots of healing properties.
Breathing right is also very healing, and it’s free.
— Understand the side effects, the duration of the intended effect(s) and the half-life of the herb in your system. I generally cross research an herb with thyroid, digestive and sleep issues as these are the main ones that are likely to be disturbed. Knowing what an herb is doing to your body and for how long is important when you get symptoms you don’t understand and are auditing your supplements for the culprit. Another important point here to remember is that many herbs can stimulate estrogen activity in your body. This is complicated, and not always a bad thing, but it can be based on your situation since excess estrogen can lead to serious longterm issues. Always do your research.
— Know if the herb is fat or water soluble. This affects absorption and determines if you can take it on an empty stomach or with food.
Herbs are great, and they have powerful effects, but don’t let this become your foundation for health. When you work with The 5 Pillars of Optimal Health, your attention is focused on the primary building blocks and this is the safest, most sustainable approach.
It is also the most boring, because you are allowing the body to do what it needs on its own time rather than forcing an outcome on yours. Herbs can be great for recovering from burnout, getting more energy, tapping into some relaxation or losing weight, but the real problem lies behind those symptoms. These are usually a misaligned digestive system, toxicities, untreated inflammation, a crummy diet, inability to handle stress, a genetic predisposition to a nutrient deficiency, unresolved trauma and so on. These areas are what need your focus with the 5 Pillars if you want long-term success.
My recommendation is that if you really want to employ herbs to their fullest extent you find a Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic Medicine practitioner in your area. These people have a lifetime of training and can customize an herbal plan for you based on your goals. Use this plan along with the 5 Pillars I discuss and you’ll tap into some powerful healing for a variety of concerns.
Generally, I do not recommend getting into herbs all by yourself, but there are a few that act as adaptogens for stress and may be worth further investigation if you can’t afford or commit to a practitioner just yet. These are rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice and ginseng, as well as several types of mushrooms like chaga, cordyceps, lion’s mane and reishi like in this awesome product below:
I used to buy these in bulk bags and boil a crazy tea every day for a month or so at a time just to help my body reset from burnout. Besides these, a few others that have made their way into my personal routine and are worth your investigation are: magnolia bark, forskolin, kaempferia galangal (or kaempferol, the flavonol), kaempferia parviflora (Thai ginseng), Korean ginseng, bacopa and xanthohumol (hops). These are
all very low-risk herbs with a variety of great benefits, although be aware that xanthohumol is the most potent phytoestrogen (plant estrogen) known to man currently, so that may not be a good thing if you've got estrogen issues.
Predominantly, these herbs help boost thyroid function, Circulation, reduce cortisol, promote energy, act as antioxidants, boost brain function and lots of other important things. They are non-toxic and each come with its own set of unique benefits, but it will be up to you to decide how to integrate them.
I have used these herbs as I have a lot of genetic SNPs for oxidative stress and thyroid function. I try to rotate them with breaks and they are all relatively inexpensive so it’s not a huge burden to add to my routine.
All in all, herbs can be a powerful friend on your journey toward optimal health, but they are a friend you have to monitor closely with a detailed plan. Don’t freak out if you accidentally ingest some herbs along with medications, and don’t be afraid of herbs either. Remember a classic quote by the Swiss physician, Paracelsus, that goes something like this: “The dose makes the poison.” This means that everything can be poisonous in the right concentration, even your attitude.
Always do your homework, be specific about your goals, work with trusted professionals and only make crazy ass tea if you know what the hell you’re getting into.