Welcome to The Ohio Department of Aging

Skip Navigation

Please Note: You are viewing the non-styled version of The Ohio Department of Aging. Either your browser does not support Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or it is disabled. We suggest upgrading your browser to the latest version of your favorite Internet browser.


Ohio Department of Aging Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

My Life - July 2009

Using Herbal Supplements Wisely
Supplements Are Effective and Economical, but Have Risks

There is a pill that could treat a medical symptom you have. Your friends and Internet bloggers swear by it, though it has not been clinically tested for effectiveness or appropriate dosing. And, depending on the brand you buy, it cannot be guaranteed to contain the advertised ingredients, and could even contain toxic chemicals, such as lead or arsenic. Do you take it?

Nearly one-fifth of Americans (38.2 million people), regularly took at least one type of herbal or dietary supplement, according to a 2006 study. This is double the number found since the previous survey in 1999 and is likely to be even higher now. Annual sales of herbal supplements exceed $23 billion, and more than 40,000 products are on the market. The most common herbs taken by Americans are echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba and garlic.

Herbal supplements are effective and economical, but have risks.Herbal remedies are popular because many people assume that something derived from nature is safer and better for you than something developed in a lab. Another reason behind their popularity is that herbal remedies are generally less expensive than prescription drugs. You can go to the library or go online to find information about the symptoms you are experiencing, find the supplement to relieve it and avoid the costs of a doctor's visit.

Western medicine is continually making discoveries about alternative treatments. Doctors are increasingly recommending herbal supplements to their patients. They have become a valuable and legitimate tool in the health care toolbox for many people. However, they require a little more caution by consumers than prescription drugs because of a relative lack of oversight.

Dietary supplements and herbal remedies do not have to be proven safe or effective before they can be sold. They are treated just like food - the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can act only after consumers get sick or a safety issue arises. As a result, the products can be inconsistent in content, quality and effectiveness. For example, two different brands can claim they contain the same plant extract, but one brand uses the flowers, while another uses the stems and leaves. One out of four supplements tested by ConsumerLab.com, an independent rating company, had some sort of problem. Some contained contaminants. Others had contents that did not match label claims or that had ingredients that exceeded safe limits. Some even contained real drugs masquerading as natural supplements.

Even if the supplement isn't adulterated in some way, it is still a medicine and, as such, can have side effects beyond the intended use. For example, St. John's Wort, which has been proven to relieve some symptoms of depression, also can affect how well or how quickly your body absorbs more than half of all prescription drugs and can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills. Feverfew, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng and ginger can lead to uncontrolled bleeding when combined with prescription blood-thinners. Ginseng and golden seal alter blood glucose levels and should never be used by people with diabetes.

To safely incorporate herbal supplements into your diet, talk to your doctor. Let him know what supplements you currently take and ask him about any you are considering adding. Also, do your homework to find a trusted brand of supplements. Don't just grab whatever is on the store's shelves or the one that came up at the top of your Internet search results. Research the different brands and find out what other people who have used them think of them.

Finally, remember that herbal remedies, just like prescription drugs, affect different people differently. If you experience unexpected side effects, or the supplement doesn't relieve the symptom you are taking it for, discontinue use immediately and talk to your doctor. Your body has a unique way of telling you if something is not good for you - listen to it.