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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
5-minute read
Episode #142

You Still Need to Pay Attention to Dosage

As with a drug, herbs also need to be taken in the appropriate dose to produce the desired effect.  (Keep in mind that more is not always better.)  It’s best to use herbal preparations that have been standardized to provide the active compounds in specific and reliable amounts.   For example, if you were looking for a St. Johns wort supplement, you’d want one that provided standardized levels of hyperforin and/or hypericin.

2. Is This Herbal Supplement Safe?

Many people are under the impression that just because something is natural it is automatically safer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Herbal supplements can have strong effects on your body. Some may be the ones you’re hoping for but others may not.  Licorice root, for example, is a traditional herbal remedy for stomach ulcers. There’s not enough research to say for sure whether or not it is effective for that condition. However, we do know that taking too much licorice root can cause high blood pressure.

Beware of Mixing Herbal Supplements with Medical Drugs

Herbs are chemically complex, containing all kinds of active compounds—both those that have been tested and standardized and those that haven’t.

Just like drugs, herbs may also interact with other herbs and medications.  St. Johns wort, for example, can reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills.  Taking St. Johns wort in conjunction with other antidepressants can increase the risk of serious side effects.

If anything, herbs can be even trickier than drugs when it comes to safety.  Pharmaceuticals are synthesized in a lab and contain only tested active compounds. Herbs, on the other hand, are much more chemically complex, containing all kinds of active compounds—both those that have been tested and standardized and those that haven’t.   Please don’t assume that nature always has only your best interests at heart. 

3. Is This Herbal Supplement Your Best Option?

Finally, even if there is evidence that an herb may be effective and safe for a particular condition, there may be a pharmaceutical option that is more effective. Depending on what sort of issue you’re dealing with, it may be more important to get the situation under control than to take the so-called natural route. In some cases, pharmaceutical options are not only more effective but also safer or cause fewer side effects.

Although I certainly respect the desire to find solutions in nature whenever possible, the natural solution is not necessarily the best solution.   After all, when we turn to herbal supplements, we’re often trying to tap into drug-like actions that certain herbs have.  If you’re looking for a drug-like action, an actual drug is sometimes a safer and more reliable way to get it.

How to Find Out Whether a Herbal Supplement Is Safe

As you can see, using herbs safely and effectively takes a good bit of research.  Because I obviously can’t address the safety and effectiveness of all the thousands of different herbs in this brief article, I’ve tried to give you a sense of what type of questions you should ask before taking any herbal supplements. 

If you’re looking for answers online, please don’t rely on Google, which is likely to take you to websites created by companies that sell herbs or to blogs that may simply be repeating lore that the bloggers read elsewhere.  In the resources section below, I have links to several reliable sources for impartial science-based information on the safety and effectiveness of herbal supplements.  And here’s one last tip: Although I am sure there are exceptions, people who work in health food stores tend not to be terribly reliable sources of information about nutrition and medicine. 

See also: How to Find Reliable Sources of Nutrition Information

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Medline Plus Guide to Herbs and Supplements

Herbal Fact Sheets (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)

Botanical Supplement Fact Sheets (National Institutes of Health)
 

Supplements image courtesy of Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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