A recent report by the PBS News Hour about benefit claims and safety issues of herbal supplements has caused a bit of a stir. I can tell, because I have received numerous e-mails with requests for advice and clarification.
Herbal supplements enjoy more popularity than ever. One of the reasons for this trend is that more people look to “natural” remedies as an alternative to traditional drug treatments when they fall sick or want to prevent sickness.
The varieties of herbal plants can generally be divided in two categories: Culinary herbs, which are commonly used as cooking ingredients to enhance flavor and aroma, and medical herbs, which are utilized for their healing properties.
While herbs for medical purposes, a.k.a. botanicals, may possess certain healing powers, they don’t fall into the category of pharmaceuticals. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, herbal products are considered as “dietary supplements.” Manufacturers of dietary supplements are not required to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before putting their products on the market. Because of this exception, manufacturers regularly include disclaimers, stating that the FDA has not evaluated or approved their products. However, once a particular item has been released for sale, the FDA can still “monitor” it for safety. If the agency finds cause for concern, it may issue warnings or require complete removal. Yet, the FDA’s authority to maintain oversight does not automatically guarantee the safety of herbal supplements.
In terms of consumer protection, this is not a satisfying policy. If you are interested in using medicinal herbs, you are basically left to your own devices. So exercise extra caution. For instance, be aware that the strength and efficacy of herbal supplements largely depends on which part of the plant the ingredients were taken – root, stem or leaves. Some products contain only small amounts or none of the ingredients named on the label, or have fillers mixed in, which can be anything from chamomile to plain grass (like in lawn). Obviously, they cannot produce the benefits they promise. Others have shown high levels of toxins and contaminants.
Because they are called “natural” doesn’t mean that all herbal products are harmless. To the contrary. Some have drug-like effects and can be outright dangerous if used inappropriately. Specific ingredients may be incompatible with other medications or produce unexpected side effects when taken together with blood thinners or blood pressure medications. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use herbs without consulting with their physician. The same goes for patients who had or are about to have surgery. Some herbs may interfere with the effectiveness of anesthetics or cause other complications, such as excessive bleeding or high blood pressure.
Although manufacturers of herbal supplements are required to label their products properly (including the name of the supplement(s), the manufacturers and distributor’s name(s) and address(es), a complete ingredients list and direction of use), you cannot always rely on the information. Makers of dietary supplements are not required to show scientific proof that their claims are true.
To protect yourself from buying inferior or questionable products, you can do some research on your own. For instance, you may want to check for alerts and advisories by the FDA or the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). They post updated lists of products on their websites that are currently under regulatory review or are not recommended because of known adverse health effects.
Be extra cautious about products manufactured in countries where regulation is lacking. Toxic substances have been found in imports from many parts of the world. Some of the strictest regulations are in Europe where member states of the European Union (EU) are bound by the same high standard rules.
If used correctly, herbal supplements can offer real benefits, especially as a preventive health care measure. But it is highly advisable to use them responsibly and, if necessary, under professional supervision.
For more information, you may wish to visit the following websites: