Are Herbal Supplements Helpful or Harmful?
Herbal supplements are popular as “natural” remedies. Are they useful for health or are they a health risk? Today, about 1 in 6 Americans use herbs to treat everything from coughs, constipation, and poison ivy, and arthritis. They are widely available and affordable and don’t require a prescription. Advocates claim this makes people more in control of their own health care; opponents fear that self-dosing may lead to toxic interactions and prevent people from seeking traditional care and proven treatments offered by conventional practitioners.
Some herbs are derived from plants in the first place. For example, aspirin comes from willow bark and digitalis from foxglove flowers to treat certain heart problems. The active ingredients may come from all the parts of the plant, so the amounts contained are affected by harvesting and processing and vary with the batch. This practice may further upset the balance of the ingredients and the doses are often affected. Herbs are made from unpurified plant material, and there is also a risk of contamination with pesticides, microbes, metals and other unnamed toxins.
Another concern is that some herbs interact with prescription drugs and cause additional problems. For example, gingko biloba and garlic can interfere with blood clotting and should not be used with blood-thinners before surgery. St. John’s wort may interact with anesthetics and antidepressants.
Herbs are medicines and like taking other medications has some advantages and risks. Whether they are helpful or harmful depends on the supplement, the dose, and the consumer. Education is essential in the pros and cons of any medication as well as herbal remedies. The best advice is “buyer beware”. This advice applies to all dietary supplements due to a lack of much-needed regulations on safety and effectiveness.