Supplement Savvy: Herbal Supplements

by in Healthy Tips, Nutrients to Know, August 2, 2011
Is it safe to take herbal supplements?

It’s a common (and dangerous) misconception that herbal supplements can be taken without worry. We’re giving you the facts on 5 of the most popular herbs.

Just like vitamins and minerals, herbal supplements are subject to loose regulation and labeling standards. In fact, the purity of these supplements is questionable and many are associated with dangerous side effects.

Popular Herbal Supplements
Taken to boost immunity and help cure the flu and common cold, echinacea is one of the most popular herbal supplements sold in the U.S.. Research on the effectiveness of this herb is mixed. While some studies found no benefit, others did point to its ability to reduce the occurrence or duration of a cold. Taking appropriate doses of echinacea for up to 12 weeks is considered safe, yet adverse reactions including stomach upset, fever and allergic reactions have been reported.

St. John’s Wort
This herb is taken for various conditions including depression, anxiety, menopause and attention-deficit disorders. There’s some scientific evidence to support that it may help treat the symptoms of depression, but buyers should beware. Large doses (2 to 4 grams per day) can cause severe skin reactions due to an increased sensitivity to sunlight. Other possible side effects include: insomnia, anxiety, irritability, stomach upset and dizziness. It’s also contraindicated for use with numerous medications including anti-depressants and oral contraceptives.

Most commonly taken for improved memory and brain function, ginko leaf extracts are the most popular form of this herb. Seeds of the ginko plant can be dangerously toxic and potentially deadly. Despite a very small amount of outdated research, ginko doesn’t appear to improve memory in people with normal mental function, nor does it reduce the risk of developing memory related problems. Side effects include increased bleeding, stomach upset, headache dizziness and heart palpitations. Pregnant women are urged not to take ginko because of its possible labor-inducing effects. There are also risks of dangerous interactions with blood thinners and the common over-the-counter drug, ibuprofen.

Bitter Orange
This herb may not sound familiar but it can be found in many popular weight loss supplements. While this fruity-named herb may sound safe, it was placed on the 2010 Consumer Reports List of Supplements to Avoid because of a list of possible dangers including fainting, heart problems, stroke and death. This herb becomes increasingly unsafe when combined with caffeine – another popular ingredient in weight loss products.

Red Yeast Rice
Becoming more and more popular as an alternative to cholesterol-lowering medications, some forms of red yeast rice contain HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, a common active ingredient in statin drugs. Some research has found that this supplement may help to reduce total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. There continues to be a debate as to whether or not it should be classified as a drug (not a supplement). In the meantime, commercially available supplements have been found to have inconsistent amounts of the active ingredients. Some have too much and some have none at all, making it incredibly dangerous. While studies conducted for up to 12-weeks have found a minimal amount of dangers, there’s insufficient evidence to support long-term safety. Side effects include: abdominal discomfort, heartburn, flatulence, dizziness and liver problems. This supplement may also interact negatively with St. John’s Wort, alcohol and prescription statin drugs.

Bottom Line: Numerous risks as well as little insurance of purity or effectiveness makes herbal supplements more risky than worthwhile. Be sure to consult with a qualified health care provider or registered dietitian before taking any herbal supplement.

Tell Us: What’s your take on herbal supplements?

Part 1 in this series: Supplement Savvy: Vitamins

Part 2 in this series: Supplement Savvy: Minerals

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »

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