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Toxicity: From Foods to Drugs

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On one side of the toxicity discussion we have those who naively claim, “it's natural, it can't hurt you.” On the other side we have those who claim that everything is toxic—it's only a matter of dose. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

For instance, there are people who drank so much carrot juice that their skin actually turned orange, but this did not do them any harm.  What is the toxic dose of mother's milk for a baby? Clearly, some substances are completely safe to consume in whatever quantities we desire because they are completely wholesome influences. Sure, if we abandon all common sense, we might be able to do harm to our bodies with these things, but you'd have to really work at it.

Of course, some foods that are completely safe for one person may be toxic to someone else. Some people are highly allergic to peanuts for example. In fact, peanuts have killed a number of people. So, there are some individual genetic variations in how our bodies react to certain foods. But, just because a few people react to a particular substance is no reason why it should be inaccessible to everyone.  We don't outlaw peanuts because some people have life-threatening allergies to them.

At the other extreme, there are natural substances that are highly poisonous. There are herbs that can kill you with a single dose, such as hemlock, belladonna, and gelsemium. Some of these toxic botanicals can still be used as medicines, provided the practitioner is skilled enough to understand how to use them safely, but they are poisonous just the same.

In between the extremes of food substances and toxic botanicals are medicinal herbs of varying strength. Various schools of traditional medicine have all had systems for classifying the relative “strength” of botanical medicines. Unfortunately, this concept is largely missing in modern Western herbal medicine, so people tend to see things as being black and white (either harmless foods or poisonous drugs).

Four Degrees of Action

At Tree of Light, we developed and use a model with four degrees of action. Our latest version of this model is shown below.  The center of the “target” is green, which then shifts to yellow and then red, suggesting that some things are very safe and others are dangerous. Our system for classifying degrees of action is less esoteric than the systems used in traditional medicine. It's based primarily on safety, rather than physiological effect.

The first degree of action is foods. Foods are substances that can be consumed daily, and in large quantities. Although foods have physiological effects and can be used as a form of medicine, a food isn't going to poison someone unless that person has a specific allergy to it.  The green on the chart indicates you can use foods freely to maintain your health.

The second degree of action is medicinal foods. Medicinal foods are substances which can be used regularly as medicine, flavoring agents or garnishes, but are not consumed in large quantities. Lemon is a very good example. While most of us might eat oranges and grapefruits as food, few of us would eat lemons. Instead, we use lemon juice for flavoring. Lemon is also more medicinal than most foods. For example, the juice of four lemons in a gallon of purified water will help to dissolve and pass kidney stones. Other examples of medicinal foods would include parsley, garlic, capsicum, ginger, bilberries, hawthorn berries and ginger. All of these substances have medicinal value, but they are also consumed regularly as food substances in small quantities. These are the herbs that are safe for long term use and hence, this section is also green.

The third degree of action is medicines. We define these jokingly as “herbs we would never eat in a salad.” Herbs that are medicines are not eaten as foods. On the other hand, they are not seriously toxic either, meaning they won't kill you or do serious damage to your body. They can, however, have unpleasant or even harmful effects when consumed in large quantities or over extended periods of time.

Medicinal herbs should be used when the body is out of balance and needs extra help to bring it back into balance. Once the problem or imbalance has been corrected the medicine should be discontinued, and foods or medicinal foods should be used to maintain that balance. If they are needed over a longer period of time to correct a chronic or constitutional imbalance, then they should be used in very small doses. Cascara sagrada, senna, lobelia, golden seal, Korean ginseng, white oak bark and yarrow would all be examples of herbs that should be thought of as medicines.

This section is colored yellow, indicating caution.  These substances should be used with an understanding of what they are for and in appropriate doses.

Toxic botanicals belong to the fourth degree category. These are plants that can kill you or do serious damage to your body if not used with a high degree of skill. Belladonna, aconite, lily of the valley, nightshade, Scotch broom and foxglove are examples of herbs that fit into this category. Most essential oils belong to this category when used internally. For instance, oregano oil can seriously damage liver tissue and even cause death. In other words, these very natural substances can cause damage to your body just like prescription drugs. In fact, they are drugs (botanical drugs) which require a comprehensive understanding of their actions and toxicity and highly skilled administration.  This is why this section is colored red.

It is interesting to note that modern medicine tends to regard stronger medicinal effects as superior medicine.  However, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the opposite is true.  Strong medicines like cascara sagrada, goldenseal and toxic botanicals would be considered “inferior” medicines, while mild tonic herbs that can be used long term to nourish and rebuild the system would be “superior” medicines.

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