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Do Herbal Supplements Work?

Do you know the 3 questions to ask before taking any herbal supplement?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #142

Cassie recently wrote with a question about herbal supplements such as St. John’s wort, which is sometimes recommended as a natural treatment for depression. “I know you aren't a big fan of vitamin supplements,” she writes, “but what about herbal supplements for specific disorders?”

Are Supplements a Waste of Money?

Cassie is right:  In general, I find vitamin supplements to be of limited value. There are a few exceptions. For example, as I discussed in a previous article, it can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from foods alone. That’s because we’re not really designed to get most of our vitamin D from foods but rather from exposure to UV radiation, or sunshine.   

See also: Benefits of Vitamin D

Depending on your diet, it might also be helpful and appropriate to take fish oil or calcium supplements—both topics that I’ve discussed at length in other articles. And, of course, if you had a medical condition that could otherwise lead to nutrient deficiencies, you might need some targeted supplementation to compensate.

But for most of us, assuming we’re eating a reasonably healthy diet, downing handfuls of high potency vitamins and antioxidant supplements every day is simply a waste of money.   Sometimes, it can even cause problems.

See also: Can You Get Too Many Antioxidants?

How are Herbal Supplements Used to Treat Illness?

Herbal supplements are a bit of a different case. It’s a little hard to generalize because there are thousands of herbs that are sold as supplements. But generally speaking, herbal supplements aren’t used as a source of nutrition—the way we might use fresh herbs. Instead, they’re used as a concentrated source of bioactive compounds or chemicals that affect the body’s function—hopefully in ways that are beneficial.

Are Herbal Supplements Better Than Medical Drugs?

Herbal supplements are often viewed as a more natural alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. Herbalists (who may or may not have a solid background in natural pharmacology) may “prescribe” various herbs to “treat” medical conditions.  Although I’m not going to say that this is always a bad idea, I think you need to use herbal supplements with as much care and caution as you would use a drug. Maybe even more.

3 Questions to Ask Before Taking an Herbal Supplement.

In particular, you need to ask yourself three questions.

1. Is This Herbal Supplement Effective?

Traditional herbology draws on centuries of observation and experience—and there is a lot of accumulated wisdom in this tradition. Willow bark is a traditional remedy for headaches and fever, for example.  And it turns out that willow bark is a natural source of salicylic acid, which is the main ingredient in aspirin.

However, some herbal lore has not stood up to scientific scrutiny. For example, wild yam is a traditional remedy for the symptoms of menopause. However, studies have found that it does not actually have any effect on hormone levels or menopausal symptoms. 

Many other remedies have simply not yet been rigorously tested so it’s hard to say for sure what they may or may not do for you. The research so far on St. Johns wort has been mixed.  Based on the existing research, it looks as if it may be effective in treating mild forms of depression but is of little use for moderate or severe depression.

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