Folk medicine has used herbs for centuries to treat and prevent disease. Today, they appear to be more popular than ever. It is estimated that about 1 in 6 Americans use herbs to treat or prevent illnesses. Herbal supplements are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain – no prescription necessary. Prescription medicines are tested for safety and efficacy and side effects are clearly available from the manufacturers.
Doses are regulated and standardized and physicians and pharmacists are trained to be aware of drug interactions that may occur that can cause dangerous sometimes fatal results. Herbal preparations have none of these safeguards. Here is what you need to know:
- Many botanical components are toxic by themselves or in combination with other herbal components.
- The FDA has issued warnings about ingredients such as comfrey, kava, and aristolochic acid.
- Ephedra found in many weight loss preparations was found to cause heart attacks and strokes and was removed from the market in 2004. Ephedra extracts not containing ephedrine are not banned (according to Wikipedia) and can be found on the Internet.
- Herbal supplements are subject to contamination of pesticides, microbes, metals and other toxins.
- Doses are not thoroughly tested for purity and concentrations.
- Some supplements should not be taken two to three weeks prior to surgery, e.g. St. John’s wort can prolong and intensity narcotic drug effects.
- Herbal supplements should not be taken during pregnancy.
- Do not give herbs to children.
- Do not use herbs for long periods of time.
- Do not fall for false health claims made by the manufacturer.
Source: Smolin, Lori A., Grosvenor, Mary B. Nutrition: Science and Applications, Third Edition.