Consumer's guide to herbal supp­lements

By Sandra Gordon, Pure Matters

But because these products don't undergo the same U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing that prescription medicines do, some of these supplements could be unsafe. They may contain contaminated ingredients, and be dangerous, or simply be sugar pills, and have no effect.

The following suggestions can help you choose and use herbal supplements wisely and safely.

Look at your life

Before you buy an herbal supplement, analyze your diet, exercise habits and mental attitude.

Instead of a supplement, perhaps more sleep, more exercise, a reorganized schedule or a healthier diet would help you feel better.

If these remedies don't work, check with your health care provider or a pharmacist about the supplements you're considering. Be sure to tell the person you consult if you're pregnant, are breast-feeding, have diabetes or are taking heart or high blood pressure medication or a blood thinner. An herbal supplement may complicate your condition.

A licensed health professional, especially one trained in herbal medicine, can make sure the supplement you're considering doesn't interact with the medications you're taking or pose any other harm.

Do your homework

In Europe and Asia, health care providers have been routinely prescribing herbal supplements for decades, even centuries, and in Asia, for millennia. Public knowledge and use of herbs in the United States is less common for several reasons: easy availability of modern, scientifically based and effective medicine, and lack of clinical studies showing the effectiveness of a majority of available herbs and supplements.

The U.S. Pharmacopeia, a body of experts that sets standards for prescription and nonprescription drugs in this country, has developed fact sheets on various herbs including valerian, feverfew and Saint-John's-wort. The information is based on published reports and clinical studies.

Until the research on herbs is more definitive, talk with your doctor and read about the risks and benefits of specific herbal supplements before you buy them.

Be aware

Keep these do's and don'ts in mind if you decide a particular herb is right for you after consulting a health professional:

  • Buy a name brand. Name brands, which are manufactured by large companies, may be safer than other brands. Remember that having a “name brand” does not guarantee that an herb is effective.
  • Don't mix herbs. Taking more than one herbal product at a time may increase the risk of side effects. Taking an herb with a prescription medication should be avoided or at least discussed with your health care provider first. Many instances of dire or fatal side effects have been documented from herb-prescription interactions.
  • Check the expiration date. Herbal supplements don't last forever. If a supplement is on sale, its potency may be about to wane.
  • Stop using an herb if you have a reaction to it and contact your doctor.
  • Be patient. It may take herbal supplements a longer time to have an effect.
  • Also remember that time alone can improve you condition without any benefit from the herb. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the benefits of time from those of ineffective herbs such as echinacea.



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