Are you going to a herbalist? How to stay safe

Teas and tinctures are chemicals. Just because it’s ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it is safe

Problems can arise when patients decide to see a herbalist or alternative medicine practitioner but don’t tell their doctor because they’re afraid of being chastised or laughed at.

The Irish Cancer Society advises cancer patients who are using alternative medicines to be upfront with their doctors. Many doctors and nurses may even give you the names of registered and certified practitioners.

Dr Dilis Clare and Prof Helen Sheridan offer similar advice: If you're going to any alternative practitioner, contact the professional organisation of the therapy in question to get the names of registered and certified practitioners.

Dilis says patients should check if "it has all the markers of a professional body: a complaints committee, audited accounts, public liability and a mechanism for public accountability, as you would expect from, for instance, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. "


Ask the therapist what they practice, what training and qualifications they hold and who issued this license. They should also ask which organisation the practitioner is registered with, and phone to check that they are actually registered; if they’re not, don’t go.

How will the therapy help? Are there any studies to prove it helps? If it is part of a clinical trial, who is sponsoring this trial? What risks and possible side-effects does this treatment pose?

Natural does not equate with safe, says Sheridan, professor of pharmacology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

“If someone is taking a tea or a tincture, these are chemicals. We need to guarantee safety. We have sage in our stuffing, but products that contain sage must be below a certain level, as it can be toxic in higher or concentrated doses. Rosemary can be too.

“I advise people to stick to products that are on sale, that have been tested and licensed, or to go to a qualified herbalist that has a qualification from a reputable institution.”

*There is scant clinical research on herbs and much of what is taken is based on traditional use, anecdotal reports and science's current understanding of their chemical properties. Herbs ordered over the internet can be wrongly labelled and may contain poisons. Anyone with a medical condition should consult with their doctor before taking a herbal remedy – herbs can interact with prescribed medications.