About Herbal Supplements

What do I need to know about herbal supplements? Are they right for me?

Hello! Today I would like to talk about herbal supplements and how they can affect our health.

We all want to be healthy, feel great, and have a lot of energy. Right? Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve these by taking something natural? There are many herbal preparations out there to buy that claim to help with some type of ailment or symptom. Some claim that they can help support health of a particular body system. But, sometimes, our good intentions can actually unknowingly cause harm. Some herbal preparations can even have serious drug interactions.

First, be aware that herbal preparations (as well as all other dietary supplements) are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) like medications. It is up to the manufacturer to meet quality standards to ensure that ingredients are accurately described and the product is free of contaminants. You should also see some type of disclaimer on the label stating that the product is not meant to treat, cure, or prevent disease.

All herbs can produce drug-like effects. If the product can cause a strong enough positive effect, then it can certainly carry risks. My best advice would be to do your homework and investigate the ingredients of the herbal supplement and weigh the risks and benefits. You should always discuss the use of herbal supplements with your provider, especially if you are taking other medications.

Can anyone use herbal supplements?

People who should use extra caution with use of herbal supplements are:

  • Children under 18 and adults over 65. Children and older adults metabolize drugs differently and may be more susceptible to adverse reactions from herbal preparations.
  • Women who are pregnant/breastfeeding. Many medications and supplements can be harmful to an unborn child or breastfeeding child even if it is safe for an adult. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should always discuss new medications or supplements with their provider.
  • People who take certain medications such as aspirin, blood thinners, or diabetes medications. Some herbal preparations can cause serious adverse reactions with certain medications. I will list a few below.
  • People who are having upcoming surgery. Some herbal preparations can impact the success of a surgery. Some can decrease the effectiveness of anesthesia or cause bleeding. Be sure to inform your surgeon if you take herbal preparations.

What are some common herbal supplements?

  • Black cohosh. This is typically used to help treat hot flashes and symptoms of menopause. Generally safe to use but some cases of liver damage have been reported.
  • Chamomile. Used to help with sleeplessness, anxiety, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Some studies have shown benefit in people with generalized anxiety disorder. It can cause severe allergic reactions, especially if allergic to related plants (like ragweed or daisies).
  • Cinnamon. Used to help with loss of appetite, gastrointestinal symptoms, and diabetes. A study in 2012 suggested that cinnamon does not help lower glucose levels in diabetes. It is generally safe for short-term use.
  • Cranberry. Most often used for urinary tract infections (UTIs). There is mixed evidence that cranberry can prevent UTIs. Large doses of cranberry can interact with warfarin, a blood thinner.
  • Echinacea. Used to treat the common cold. Taking echinacea after you catch a cold has not been proven to shorten the duration of a cold but taking it while you are well may help prevent a cold. Short-term use is generally safe.
  • Garlic. Used for many purposes including high blood pressure and cholesterol, the common cold, and prevention of other diseases. Evidence is weak as to whether garlic actually lowers blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol. However, some studies suggest that people who eat garlic may be less likely to develop stomach and colon cancer. Taking garlic may increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Ginkgo. This is used as a dietary supplement for many types of conditions but there is no conclusive evidence that it is helpful. It is generally safe in moderate amounts.
  • Kava. This is generally used as a dietary supplement for anxiety. Kava supplements may have a small effect on reducing anxiety but have been linked to severe liver disease. Heavy consumption has been linked with heart problems and eye irritation.
  • Milk Thistle. Historically, milk thistle has been used for liver problems such as hepatitis and cirrhosis. Results from clinical trials have been mixed. Like chamomile, it can cause severe allergic reactions, especially if allergic to related plants.
  • Saw Palmetto. Used to help with symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate gland. High-quality studies have shown that saw palmetto is no more effective than a placebo in improving urinary tract symptoms related to an enlarged prostate gland. It generally does not interact with medications.
  • St. John’s Wort which is most often used for symptoms of depression. There has been extensive research which clearly shows that this supplement can cause serious, even life-threatening drug interactions. St. John’s Wort can weaken the effect of many medications including birth control pills, antidepressants, some HIV drugs, cyclosporine, warfarin, and some cancer drugs. It is crucial that you inform your health care provider if you are taking St. John’s Wort.

What else should I know?

Please be sure to discuss with your health care provider all of your medications and supplements in order to assess for potential interactions. Use herbal supplements wisely– always read the label and take as directed.

MedilinePlus has a lot of great information regarding herbal preparations if you would like to read more.

I hope this was helpful! Feel free to comment below.

I will not be posting next week as I will be cruising in the Bahamas! Bon Voyage! 🙂

Disclaimer: The content of this post is not to substitute for medical advice. If you think you are having a medical problem, please contact your physician/provider.