hould you take herbals for health?

February 20, 2002

Should you take herbals for health?

By Lynn F. Little

Once thought of as "traditional medicine" used by native or ancient cultures, herbal medicine has emerged as a popular alternative or supplement to modern medicine. According to the World Health Organization, 4 billion people, almost 70 percent of the world population, use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. In India and China, these traditions date back thousands of years.

People take herbs for many reasons and many conditions. One of the biggest reasons is that herbs are considered natural and therefore healthier and gentler than conventional drugs. They are used for everything from upset stomachs to headaches.

Some people take them for overall health and well-being, not for any specific condition. For others, herbal use is grounded in traditions passed down from generation to generation or recommended by folk healers.

Many herbs have health benefits. Research has shown that echinacea cuts the length of colds and that powdered ginger is effective against motion sickness and nausea. Overall research is lacking, however, especially well-controlled studies. There are many unanswered questions. We don't know all of the short-term and long-term benefits and risks of many herbs, let alone all of their active or beneficial ingredients. More studies are currently being conducted.


Because herbs are natural, many people believe they are safe. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. While many herbs may be considered safe, some have hazardous side effects.

To address this uncertainty, federal law states that herbs cannot claim to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure a condition or disease. Herbs may carry health-related claims about effects on the "structure or function of the body" or "general well-being" that may result from the product.

This definition is very loose and gives rise to misleading health claims. Ultimately, the consumer is responsible for checking the validity of and avoiding products with fraudulent claims.

Herbs also may interact with prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and minerals. For example, ginkgo taken with aspirin may lead to spontaneous and/or excessive bleeding. High doses of garlic may enhance the blood-thinning activities of anti-inflammatory medications and vitamin E. Proceed cautiously. Advise your doctor, pharmacist and other health professionals of all herbs you are taking

Herbal products - like vitamin and mineral supplements - are classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as dietary supplements, not drugs. As a result, they are not tested for safety or efficacy. Thus, herbal products can be marketed at any time, without scientific research and without approval from the FDA.

Drug companies, on the other hand, must conduct clinical studies to determine the effectiveness of the drugs, their safety, possible interactions with other substances, and appropriate dosages.

The FDA must review the data and authorize the drug's use before the product may be marketed. The FDA can take regulatory action on an herbal product only after it has received a sufficient number of reports of ill effects and can show the product is unsafe.

Because drugs are standardized, when you buy a drug - even an over-the-counter drug - you know that each capsule contains the same amount of active ingredients. Drug companies have to follow strict quality-control measures. Herb companies do not. Doses differ between herb capsules and from product to product. The active ingredients also vary depending on the plant part (flower, root, seeds, nuts, bark, branch), plant form (dried, extract, tincture, tea) and plant species.

The herbal industry is taking steps to address standardization. Currently, if manufacturers follow certain protocols for extracting or drying herbs, they can include USP (for the United States Pharmaceopia) or NF (for Natural Formulary) on their label. It does not ensure that doses are the same from one bottle to another, or that the product is safe, but it does attempt to eliminate huge differences.

The most rigorous stamp of approval is from Consumer Lab (CL). CL conducts independent tests of products for identity and potency (proper labeling), purity (any contaminants), and consistency (the same identity, potency and purity from one batch to the next). Products that pass their tests contain a CL stamp of approval.

To date, herbs have not been well studied and are not well understood. Until we have a clearer picture, consumers must become informed in order to protect themselves from questionable health products and services. Here are some tips to help you do so:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Determine whether you really need an herbal supplement.

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