PrepBusters: Using Herbal Remedies – Four Things You Need To Know

A few hours after she ate the greens, she was feeling unwell, tired but unsettled. She noticed her pulse was slow and irregular.  The the abdominal pain came on, with nausea and vomiting. Her chest started to hurt….(1)

In the.PrepBusters series, we address some misconceptions we see in the prepper community.  This episode was brought on by my wandering through a different site (which I’m not going to name, as I appreciate what they’re trying to do; this is about adding information not criticizing people for what they do provide). They had lot of information on medicinal herbs, with a little paragraph about what each was reportedly good for.  One of the entries caught my eye:  Digitalis purpurea, common name Foxglove, can be made into a tea that is good for weak hearts.

Herbal tea can kill or heal, depending on how wisely it’s used.

Quite true. Various species of the flowers in the Digitalis family, as well as yellow oleander and lily of the valley, produce a group of potent drugs known as cardiac glycosides.  Digitalis, from Digitalis purpurea, is the best known.  The purified form of digitalis is frequently prescribed when docs want to strengthen a heartbeat without speeding the heart up, such as just after a heart attack.  Foxglove tea was used for similar purposes by native Americans – probably still is. So this is good stuff for a prepper to know.

Digitalis purpurea, or foxglove, is the source of an import cardiac drug. Better know how to use it before you sip that tea! Thanks Jcart534* for the image.

On the other hand… it’s not hard at all to find reports of people who died from drinking herbal tea made with foxglove. (2) The thing about really potent (and therefore potentially useful) herbal remedies is you’ve got to know what the heck you’re doing.  It’s an axiom in physiology that every drug, in sufficient concentration, is a poison.  If you’re going to mess with poisons, you sure better know what you’re doing.

Using herbal remedies to heal not harm

It seems to me that if you’re going to use herbal remedies, there are several things in particular you must know:

1. What plant is good for what problem.  That one’s pretty obvious, and the easiest information to find.

2. How to identify the plant – not just pretty well, but with stone cold accuracy, including how to distinguish it from other similar looking plants, and what it looks like in various points of its life cycle. People have died of foxglove poisoning, for example, when thinking they were drinking teas of comfrey or borage when they’d picked young, not yet flowering foxglove.

3. How to prep the plant for use.  Digitalis, for example, is water soluble, so one can make a tea of it.  Other active compounds don’t dissolve well in water, so have to be ground in alcohol to make a tincture.

4. Dosage would be really important … too bad it’s effectively unobtainable.  Age of plant, strain, soil, growth conditions, parts of the plants used — all of these affect how much of an active compound will be in a sample of plant; and you can add in age and preservation method if it’s not fresh picked.  What can you do instead?  Well, if I need to use these kinds of remedies, I’ll go with:  Signs and symptoms of right dose vs. early signs of overdose.  I’d start with what I thought was too little, give it time to have effect, and check those signs and symptoms.  Not enough effect?  Try a little more.  Any sign of overdose, STOP!

Bonus, 5. If there’s another herbal remedy that blocks the effect of the first, it’d be great if you knew how to use it and had some on hand in case of overdose. For example, Jimmyweed (pilocarpine source) and belladonna (atropine source) reverse each other’s effects. 

These complications are a main reason I appreciate purified medicines; but when in need, we use what we can get.  Better to know how to use an herbal remedy properly than either do without, or poison yourself.  Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.


1) Renée M. Janssen, Mattias Berg, Daniel H. Ovakim. Two cases of cardiac glycoside poisoning from accidental foxglove ingestion. CMAJ Feb 2016, cmaj.150676; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.150676

2) Adrienne Hughes,Robert G. Hendrickson,Betty Chia-Chi Chen &Matthew Valento. Letter in response to “fatal cardiac glycoside poisoning due to mistaking foxglove for comfrey”. Pages 1-3 | Received 12 Sep 2017, Accepted 24 Oct 2017, Published online: 02 Nov 2017

*By Jcart1534 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons




  1. Not knowing how to use herbal meds is why I do not use more of them. I would like to use more but have not found accurate info. Is there any online course?

    • I haven’t found a course, Dusty. There are books (which I haven’t had time to read; I’ve put a couple in the prepper library). There is online information on a case by case basis. I’m in the research end now of writing a post on willow bark that has useful, simple direction.

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