We all know that herbs have a wide range of medicinal capabilities (plants are the foundation for many medications), but do these over-the-counter “herbal supplements” work, and are they safe? Before you use herbal supplements, here’s what you should know.
I adore plants and am a firm believer in their medicinal qualities. “Plants are the master chemists,” according to one study biologist. Plants produce phytochemicals in large quantities, many of which are used to defend them from disease organisms, UV radiation, and other types of environmental hardship.
Plant-based remedies have been used by humans (and many animals) for thousands of years to benefit from these defensive compounds. Plants are responsible for over 40% of current pharmaceutical medications, and continuing research throughout the world continues to uncover the mostly unexplored potential of plants for human health.
What Are Herbal Supplements and How Do They Work?
Herbal supplements are plant-based products (typically capsules) used internally to treat sickness or enhance health. Herbal supplements are not controlled in the same way as medicines in the United States. Herbal supplements are considered foods by the FDA, not medicines. They’re frequently referred to as dietary supplements (or, more accurately, botanical, nutritional supplements). This implies that herbal supplements are not subjected to the same clinical testing or safety criteria as pharmaceuticals.
Furthermore, a herbal supplement cannot claim to treat a medical problem. People use St. John’s wort for depression, but the label can’t declare it helps since a regulated government organization hasn’t shown it; instead, the title might refer to your “mood.”
Is it Safe to Take Herbal Supplements?
ACCORDING TO A RECENT CANADIAN RESEARCH, many OTC pills don’t contain much, if any, of the claimed herb. They may contain unlisted filler components that might trigger allergies or severe responses. However, the American Botanical Council responded with a harsh critique, claiming that the Canadian study was inaccurate and unclear. It is recommended that it be removed, corrected, amended, and re-reviewed before being republished.
When you read the two together, it becomes clear how difficult it is to assist customers and healthcare professionals in evaluating and comparing the quality of herbal products. There’s no denying that certain “herbal” products, especially those marketed for weight reduction or sexual enhancement, include active pharmaceutical components or “drugs.”
Even a “pure” herbal remedy derived from natural plant ingredients isn’t necessarily safe or effective. However, the fact that a herb has been used by traditional healers or individuals treating themselves for hundreds, if not thousands, of years shows it may be capable of producing some actual results. Always appreciate herbal medicine, regardless of where it came from.
Before You Buy, Here’s What You Should Know
As a layman, I recommend studying as much as possible about a herbal product and asking plenty of questions before purchasing and trying it. Consider the following scenario:
Is there any high-quality research that supports the herbal product’s safety and efficacy for the application you intend?
Is there any proof of possible side effects or negative impacts from using this product?
Is it possible that the product will interact with the medications and/or herbal supplements you’re already taking?
Is it safe for pregnant women, or may they get pregnant while taking it?
Is it safe for babies and little children?
Where was the herb produced, harvested, processed, and stored, and how was it done?
As a plant component (leaf, flower, or root), will you consume it whole or as a “standardized” preparation? Is it a single herb or a blend of two or more herbs? Is it better to take it as a capsule, powder, extract, tea, tincture, or cream? What prompted you to make that decision?
What dose are you going to take? How often do you do it, and how long do you do it? What variables influenced your dosing decision?
I’ve tried a lot of herbal OTC medications over the years. I tried items advised by friends or promoted in publications early on, armed with a few reference books (and generally without consulting or alerting my doctor).
Some of them did nothing to help me. One worked pretty well, but I had serious heart palpitations after using it for a long time. Another made me feel very nauseous. Some products, including a couple prescribed by my doctors, have proven effective, and I continue to have a supply on hand.
These days, I’m far more inclined to explore, harvest, and utilize the herbs that grow wild around here and that aboriginal people used as a medicine long before modern drugs were invented.
If you do decide to take a herbal supplement (or manufacture your own), talk it over with your healthcare provider beforehand. Many pharmacists, for instance, have specialized training or an interest in traditional herbal medicines, and they may have access to up-to-date, research-based material that you haven’t found yet.
Also, remember to bring all of your herbs in their original containers with you whenever you see your primary care physician, dentist, or go to the pharmacy to get a new prescription filled. To learn about any interactions or contraindications between and among the medications and plants, request a consultation with the pharmacist.
Find out more.
Users may check up on published scientific studies connected to individual herbs on this subsite of PubMed (a public collection of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical themes). Simply put a herb’s name into the top-of-the-page Search box.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of Australia has launched an adverse event database. After reading this post, go to the database and start searching. Despite its Australian focus, the database contains a wealth of information that Americans may find beneficial.
The American Botanical Council (ABC) has a plethora of information on herbal medicine.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting (NCCAM). This is a fantastic location to start learning about the various therapies that complement but are not part of standard biomedical therapy.
A Quick Guide to Herbs A series of short fact sheets from NCCAM that give basic information on certain plants or botanicals.
Herbs and other dietary supplements are often asked questions.
How to Detect Healthcare Fraud A helpful checklist that includes examples.
Plants Are (In Most Cases) Better Than Drugs Dr. Andrew Weil makes the argument for using plant medicine as a first-line treatment.