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Herbal Remedies -- Friend or Foe?

Aug 17, 2007
Increasing attention is being drawn to herbal supplements (the use of herbs in various forms to alleviate ailments). More people are turning to herbal remedies for relief, claiming they are tired of paying high prices for traditional medications and worried about possible chemical side effects. However, recent reports describe the harm some herbal supplements can cause. How do we know which are the best supplements and, more importantly, if these remedies are safe?

Opinions on the safety of herbal products vary greatly. The herb industry is partly regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. However, some advocates of this "alternative" medicine industry discounts many of the FDA's opinions, claiming that they have business ties to the pharmaceutical industry, causing a conflict in interest. However, there seems to be a consensus that the U.S. should move towards a model where herbal supplements are subject to regulatory controls and scientific testing similar to that of pharmaceuticals, in the interest of consumer safety.

Tug of war: Herbal medicine vs. Pharmaceuticals

Who believes that herbal supplements are beneficial? According to the World Health Organization, most of the world population (approximately 80 percent) have used herbs to try to heal an ailment. Herbal "medicine" is a multi-billion dollar industry, grossing over $2 billion in 1996 and estimated at almost $6.5 billion in 2000. This figure seems less impressive when you compare the profits of the top 10 drug companies, each of which enjoy average profits of $2.5 billion.

Some people complain that taxpayers subsidize research for pharmaceuticals, and then end up paying huge medical bills if they do not have insurance to cover the cost of the drugs. That is pretty profitable business, according to herb supporters.

The top selling drugs are for heartburn, ulcers, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression and allergies. Supporters of "natural" remedies say that these common illnesses could be alleviated by a change in diet and exercise, as well as reducing stress. However, it is often easier to pop a pill than it is to change a lifestyle.

Most of us recognize the need to improve our nutrition and want to eat things that are healthy for us, perhaps including herbal supplements. You may have resisted taking prescription drugs, and wondered if there is a more "natural" way to solve the medical problem.

Plants have been used for medicinal purposes since the Stone Age, so itis not surprising that a natural solution is appealing. However, consider the following facts:

1) More than 50 percent of the drugs made in pharmaceutical companies are actually made with plant derivatives, such as digitalis (made from foxgloves) and taxol (from the Pacific Yew).
2) According to a study by the California Department of Health Services, 32 percent of 260 Asian patent medicines sold in California were contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs, steroids or heavy metals. Herbal medicines imported from India, Mexico and China also were found to have less-than-natural substances.
3) Prescription weight-loss pills containing a Chinese herb,Aristolochia fangchi, have been found to cause cancer or severe kidney damage, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The FDA announced they will stop the import of this herb.
4) Take a look at some of the reputed benefits and side effects of some popular herbs.

USA TODAY July 19, 2000 story on "functional foods" indicates that foods and beverages with added herbs and supplements are being looked at more carefully by the FDA. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has identified 75 foods with herbs added including varieties of some popular beverages. The FDA has the authority to take products off the shelves if they feel products are unsafe. No clinical trials are required for "functional foods," so be aware of the foods and beverages you consume.

Still not clear on whether to use herbs?

Do not rely on an advertisement for an herbal product or the recommendation of a friend who may have a totally different medical history and react in a different way. It has been found that some herbs cause premature contractions, so pregnant women should avoid herbal supplements as should the very young or elderly, who are prone to adverse affects of many herbs. If you are thinking of using herbs as a preventive measure or to relieve symptoms, make sure you:

1) Research the herbs and products you are interested in, looking at varying opinions to give you a rounded perspective. Remember that just because it is natural, does not mean it is safe. Some herbs (e.g. comfrey) have toxic effects. Be careful!
2) Talk to your physician or contact us to determine if there may be side effects or if it may counteract other medications you are taking. Forty percent of people taking herbal supplements do not tell their doctors and dentists. Do not make this mistake! If you take herbs that act as blood thinners and you need a tooth extracted or other surgery, you may bleed excessively.
3) If you buy a herbal product, follow the directions carefully.
4) It is not uncommon for people to have allergic reactions to herbs soon after taking them. If you have any problems such as nausea, rashes, cramps, stop taking them. Call your physician if you have any concerns.
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