SOME HERBAL BASICS:
Herbalism addresses the whole body while targeting specific problem areas. Certain herbs are known to have special affinities for specific organ systems, i.e. Milk Thistle for the liver, Echinacea for the immune system, Hawthorn for the cardiovascular system, etc. However, in addition to these specific actions, herbs also affect many other aspects of the whole organism. While the herb's primary action may be in a specific area, it's secondary actions may address other systems in a supportive fashion. Our bodies will use the herb's influence where it is needed. There are many classes of herbs (which I will not go into here), and most herbs belong to more than one class (i.e. they have more than one action in the body).
Herbalists prefer to speak of "conditions" rather than "diseases." A disease is a group of symptoms which has been assigned a name. An individual is not "a disease", and your individual symptoms and the way you respond to an immune assault are unique to you. For instance, the common cold is generally characterized by a persistant cough, runny nose, etc., perhaps even a low-grade fever. However, as in homeopathy, the herbalist recognizes that each person's experience of a cold is unique and should be addressed accordingly. Some people have a wet, productive cough; others, a dry, hacking cough. The person's individual formula would address their unique symptoms. The formula would be changed as the symptoms changed.
Certain herbs resonate with certain people, and what works for one may not work for another. As with foods, any person can be sensitive or even allergic to a particular herb. This is why it is difficult to generalize, and important to proceed conservatively with any herb until you know how you respond to it. I once read a case history of a bartender with severe eczema. The attending herbalist included a certain herb in his prescription (one with which he had had great past success) only to see the patient's condition continue to worsen, far past what might have been seen as a healing crises. The herbalist changed the formula, but kept the herb with which he'd never had a problem. Still no improvement. It was only when another herb was substituted for that one herb that the patient's condition began to improve. Likewise, the herb Valerian may work well as a gentle sedative for one person, while another responds better to Scullcap or Passionflower. Personally, I have found that Valerian helps me tremendously when I'm very stressed, but not as a sedative. If I want to go to sleep, I drink Chamomile tea. I rarely make it through a half cup before I'm out like a light. So, for myself, I know that Chamomile is not an herb I should take during the day unless I want a nap! Many people, however, have the opposite experience: Valerian knocks them out, and Chamomile merely calms them. Also, for a small number of people, Valerian acts as a stimulant rather than a sedative.
The point is, with any herb, start small until you know how you respond to it. If you experience unpleasant effects (i.e. nausea), try reducing the dose. If that doesn't work, look for another herb with the same characteristics and see how you respond to it, or consult an herbalist. Also keep in mind that with any single herb or combination that you plan to take long-term, it is a good idea and accepted practice to take periodic breaks. This could mean anything from taking weekends off to one week off per 1-3 months, depending on the condition being addressed and the herbs in use. Acute conditions (sudden onset, severe symptoms, short duration such as colds and flu, cystitis, or menstrual cramps) are addressed differently than chronic conditions (long-standing or recurring conditions such as arthritis or chronic PMS). Acute conditions require more frequent and often higher doses than chronic conditions, such as taking Echinacea every few hours at the first sign of a cold. Some herbs that are appropriate for acute conditions are not appropriate for long-term use, such as goldenseal and juniper berries. Again, always research the herb(s) you plan to use in order to maximize effectiveness and avoid creating new problems. As always, you can take too much of a good thing.
USING HERBS WITH COMPANION ANIMALS
While there are some good formulas on the market for pets these days, a true herbal prescription is based on individual needs and constitution. The rules with animals are the same as for humans: as the situation changes, so does the herbal prescription. However, self-treating your pet with herbs you are not familiar with can cause problems, particularly with long-term use and/or inappropriate dosing. Your dog or cat cannot tell you when she is nauseous, or if the herbs make her head hurt. As always, do your research. Cats can be sensitive to herbs (after all, they only have to SNIFF catnip), especially alcohol-based tinctures. Many people report that Echinacea makes their cats foam at the mouth even when given in small amounts. This is not surprising, as Echinacea promotes salivation. Always start at the low end of the dosage scale until you see how your pet responds. For cats, 2 drops per 10 lb. body weight is a good starting point with an alcohol tincure. Dilute the drops in a bit of water or broth before administering, or mix them well into the food. Herbal glycerites are also available and are a good alternative for cats, although in general they are an inferior product to alcohol tinctures and must be dosed at higher levels to be effective. Powdered herbs are another option, but they have a very limited shelf life. Many of those you buy off the grocery store shelf may have already lost their potency by the time you purchase them. Still, some holistic veterinarians recommend powdered or crushed herbs because they can easily be mixed with food. If you choose powdered herbs, either select a reliable brand or powder them yourself. Teas are also a good choice for cats as well as dogs as they can be mixed into the food.