I have found herbs to be very helpful in treating my patients. When used properly, they are very safe — far safer than the medications that are given to help the same conditions. Unlike meds, for most herbs, the longer they are used, the greater the benefit the patient gets from them. Also the side effects tend to be minimal; there are a few patients who are allergic to a specific herb. For most, the biggest problem is some stomach upset, and even that is not common.

There is another important difference between herbs and drugs. Most drugs are designed to interfere with normal function. For example, the drugs used to treat GERD, or acid reflux, work by reducing acid production by the stomach. But GERD is not caused by excess acid — it is caused by a faulty valve at the top of the stomach that allows acidic stomach contents to flow up into the throat. So taking the drug does not address the problem; it just limits the damage of reflux by making the contents of the stomach less acidic. This in turn produces more problems later on, because of the stomach cannot do its usual job of digestion.

The herbs I use for GERD do not reduce stomach acid; instead, they improve stomach function, including strengthening the valve at the top of the stomach, so the acid stays in the stomach, where it belongs.

They also tend to have multiple benefits. Many of them slightly thin the blood. (This is why a patient on blood thinners has to be careful about using herbs.) This is important in today’s world, as our diets and lifestyles tend to promote clotting. This is especially true from eating a lot of processed foods, as well as grains and grain-fed animals; also there are medications that promote clotting, such as birth control pills.

Several herbs also improve circulation at the level of the smallest vessels. This helps counter some of the damage done to these vessels by our chronically high blood sugar counts, again from eating processed foods, especially sugar. The majority of heart disease is the result of this type of damage to the vessels that supply the heart muscle. Perhaps most importantly, several herbs have anti-inflammatory effects. Chronic inflammation underlies so many of our chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and even dementia.

Many medications are based on herbs. One of the earliest examples is aspirin. Willow bark has been used as an anti-inflammatory since the early Egyptians and was mentioned by Hippocrates. In 1897, the active ingredient in willow bark was extracted and chemically altered to make aspirin. While this greatly increased the anti-inflammatory effect, it also led to a substance with serious side effects that willow bark does not have.

Most herbs have been used for centuries, so the risks and benefits are relatively well known. What is not as well known is their interactions with prescription meds or even over-the-counter meds.

But despite all this good news, I discourage patients from getting herbs on their own. A shocking report from the New York attorney general’s office detailed how it analyzed herbs bought at Wal-Mart, GNC, Target and Walgreens and found that four out of five of them had none of the herbs stated on the labels but instead had ingredients such as rice powder, radish, even wheat in a product advertised to be gluten free.

As I said, I use herbals a lot with my patients and find them very effective. But I do not recommend “going it alone” with them; while they have a much better safety profile than medications, it is still better to get a recommendation from someone trained in their use. I only use a brand that tests for quality and consistency of the products. They also provide training to providers so they can be used safely; because of this, they only deal with health care providers. Herbs can be a fantastic alternative to many medications and a key part of a good wellness program, but they have to be used with caution.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at noonanchiropractic@gmail.com.