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Investigating Herbs and Supplements

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

What's the difference between herbs and supplements and the drugs that you buy over the counter?

Shopping for dietary supplements can be like stepping into a wild frontier with few rules and fewer enforcers. Since the federal government doesn't regulate herbs and supplements -- as it does prescription and over-the-counter drugs -- herbal remedies don't have to go through rigorous testing or display labels with consumer warnings.

That said, not every supplement lives up to its promises, and various types can contain vastly different amounts of the same ingredients. While some herbs and supplements are time-tested and useful, others are of no value and a few pose serious threats. Part of the multi-billion herb and supplements industry is built on hucksterism and unsubstantiated claims, and you can't always trust labels, Internet sites that sell supplements, or even well-meaning clerks at health food stores to set you straight.

How can I find reliable information about which ones are safe and effective?

There are some experts who are looking out for you and some reliable sources that can help you stay healthy and safe.

One valuable resource for anyone interested in dietary supplements is Medwatch (http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/), a government site that lists dangers and warnings on a wide variety of supplements, prescription drugs, and medical devices. Medwatch is designed for doctors, but you don't need to have MD after your name to use the site. Just click on "Safety Information" and you'll find up-to-date, easy-to-understand information on some of the biggest dangers posed by supplements.

For example, Medwatch tells you that "club drugs" and purported muscle-building and sex-enhancing products that contain GBL (gamma butyrolactone) can cause coma, seizures, and death, and "herbal fen-phen" weight-loss products can cause insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure, even heart attack and stroke. It will tell you that "Joyful Slimming Herb" contains sibutramine, which is known to increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias or stroke. While you're at it, check any over-the-counter products marketed as having similar effects.

Medwatch is also a great place to get the real scoop on Internet rumors. Perhaps you've heard that some tampons contain asbestos and that rayon fibers cause toxic-shock syndrome. Medwatch has reassuring news: These statements are completely without foundation.

References

The TNP Handbook of Herbs, Supplements, and Conditions: A Guide for Health Professionals (The Natural Pharmacist) by Andrea Girman M.D. M.P. and Steven Bratman M.D., Sep 29, 2009.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 2011. This encyclopedic resource, available in print, on the Web, and in a PDA version, contains reliable data on over 1,000 herbs and non-herbal products. The database describes common uses, effectiveness, safety, and interactions with drugs, food, and other supplements. http://www.naturaldatabase.com.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/

Joyful Slim Herbal Supplement, Medwatch, U. S. Food and Drug Administration, 2010

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