The herbal industry has become big business over the last several years.  As prescription drug prices have spiked, people have begun looking for a more affordable, and supposedly safer alternative to "big" medicine.  This rise in herbal remedies begs the questions:  Do they really work, and just how safe are they?  If you are searching for answers, read through our blog today for some helpful tips on herbal supplements.  Do your research, West Columbia, and stay healthy this winter.

Herbs: Cure All or 21st Century Snake Oil?

Remember when herbs were only used to season your food? Now we are deluged with internet advertising for herbal remedies that claim to cure everything from dry skin to stage four cancer. Are herbs a viable alternative to manufactured and regulated medicine, or is this yet another magic bullet? The answer to both questions is yes. So let’s proceed with caution—and a healthy dose of skepticism.

First, the best place to get reliable information on health issues of any kind is not the internet. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and undertaken by Drs. Charles A. Morris and Jerry Avorn, the internet is “rife with bogus claims on herbs.” Morris and Avorn evaluated 443 herbal remedy Web sites and found that 338 of them either sold an herbal product or linked directly to a vendor. Of those, 273 offered at least one health claim for their herbs. Of those, 149 claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose or cure specific diseases, even though such claims are specifically prohibited without prior approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 made it illegal to make a relationship between an herbal product and a disease or condition without submitting data to the FDA to prove that the product works. Herbal remedies, considered dietary supplements by the FDA, can only make a “structure or function” claim without FDA approval, such as that milk thistle “supports healthy liver function,” not “milk thistle cures liver disease.” See the difference? Herbal preparations also are required to carry the disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

According to Morris and Avorn’s study, more than half the Web sites they evaluated did not have the FDA disclaimer. And, more disturbing, there were numerous instances of sites putting forth unsubstantiated disease claims. While some “natural” remedy proponents allege that the FDA is in collusion with prescription drug companies trying to discredit herbs’ effectiveness, it is wise to note that 76 percent of the Web sites studied by Morris and Avorn are profit-making vendors of the herbal remedies for which they make dubious claims.

Morris is not against the use of herbs, but rather the tactics and false claims that some manufacturers use. “Some of these products have demonstrated efficacy,” he says. “The manufacturers who make health claims need to prove them.”

So are herbs just another too-good-to-be-true, pie-in-the-sky panacea? Not at all, most experts agree. Herbal remedies do indeed provide health enhancement and symptom relief. But beware: don’t take the advice of internet sites or clerks at natural/health food stores. Dr. Letitia Wright warns that putting your health in the hands of a minimum wage clerk can be hazardous to your health. Never take any supplement or preparation without consulting your healthcare provider first.

Another problem that has recently begun to plague the herb industry is drug interactions. Many consumers believe because herbal remedies are “natural” and not manufactured, there aren’t any adverse effects. Remember that the same kind of chemicals that are used in manufactured drugs exist in natural form and therefore can interact adversely with prescriptions drugs, other herbs and even the food you eat. In a study on this subject, John Markowitz, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, demonstrated that the herb St. John’s wort adversely affected the metabolism of the prescription anti-anxiety drug Xanax (alprazolam).

Other documented interactions between St. John’s wort and other drugs include birth control pills, immunosuppressant drugs, an antihistamine and an antidepressant.

To throw in yet another monkey wrench, different manufacturers use different strengths of herbs in their preparations. And others mix so many different herbs together that their effectiveness is diluted to the point of “why bother,” usually the so-called “weight-loss herbs.” Clinically trained herbalist Douglas Schar wrote of these "kitchen sink" supplements in Prevention Magazine. These are products that contain as many as 20 herbs in a tablet or capsule. “It's hard enough to get an active dose of one herb into a single tablet or capsule, much less 20 active doses of 20 different herbs,” Schar says. “Bottom line: They just don't work. Avoid diet products containing many different herbs.”

Some rules of thumb:

  • consult with your healthcare provider.
  • Do your research from credible sources.
  • Don’t believe everything you hear or read, especially on the internet.
  • Try to find clinical research that backs up health claims.
  • Don’t rely on anecdotal “evidence.”
  • Watch out for drug interactions and
  • compare strengths and dosages of herbs in whatever preparation you choose.


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