Pros and cons of herbal supplements

It was whilst walking through — I said walking. I think I should rephrase that, whilst squelching through muddy pools of water, in an area known as Long Pond — Yes Long Pond in the parish of St. Andrew — doing my bit for nature walks and experiencing my first attempts at in land fishing and successfully I must add, I came up with the inspiration for this week’s article.

No, it is not about crabs and crab attacks, neither is it about casting a net into Long Pond (a very optimistic description), nor the fun and relaxation derived, but this week, we will look at the herbal market again.

Goldenseal to stop the flu. Ginseng to provide energy memory. Dog Dumpling to cure everything. Flaxseed to lower cholesterol. The list goes on and on.

Herbs’ being used as medicine is not new. Plants have been used for thousands of years. We all know someone who has been cured by one plant or another. Authors have made a lot of money telling us how the drug companies have deceived us by hiding data that proves how effective herbal medicines could be if given the chance.

However, the real truth is that herbal supplements aren’t subjected to the same scientific scrutiny and aren’t as strictly regulated as medicines. Makers of herbal supplements don’t have to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration before putting their products on the market.

Yet some herbal supplements — including products labelled as “natural” — have drug-like effects that can be dangerous. So it’s important to do your homework and investigate potential benefits and side effects of herbal supplements before you buy. And be sure to talk with your doctor or pharmacist, especially if you take medications, have chronic health problems, or are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Herbal supplements fall under a category called dietary supplements. The rules for dietary supplements are as follows:

Herbal product manufacturers don’t have to seek FDA approval before putting their products on the market. In addition, companies can only claim that their products address a nutrient deficiency, support health or are linked to body functions — if they have supporting research and they include a disclaimer that the FDA hasn’t evaluated the claim.

Herbal product manufacturers must follow good manufacturing practices to ensure that supplements are processed consistently and meet quality standards. These regulations are intended to keep the wrong ingredients and contaminants, such as pesticides and lead, out of supplements, as well as make sure that the right ingredients are included in appropriate amounts.

Once a dietary supplement is on the market, the FDA is responsible for monitoring its safety. If the FDA finds a product to be unsafe, it can take action against the manufacturer or distributor or both, and usually issues a warning or requires that the product be removed from the market.

These regulations ensure that herbal supplements meet certain quality standards and that the FDA can intervene to remove dangerous products from the market.

The rules do not, however, guarantee that herbal supplements are safe for anyone to use or that they actually contain what the label says they contain or the amounts on the label. Because many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong effects in the body, these products can interact with other medicines. For this reason, it’s important to talk with your pharmacist doctor before using herbal supplements.

All herbal supplements are required by the FDA to have the following information included on their labels:

• The name of the herbal supplement;

• A complete list of ingredients — either in the Supplement Facts panel or listed beneath it;

• The name and address of manufacturer or distributor; • Serving size, amount and active ingredient. If you don’t understand something on an herbal supplements label, ask your pharmacist for an explanation. You can also compare ingredients in products by using

the Dietary Supplements Labels Database, which is available on the National Library of Medicine’s website. The database has information on the ingredients for thousands of dietary supplements. You can look up products by brand name, uses, active ingredient or manufacturer.

Manufacturers of herbal supplements are supposed to ensure that their claims aren’t false or misleading and that they’re backed up by adequate evidence. The thing is though; they aren’t required to submit this evidence to the FDA. For this reason you cannot rely on a product’s marketing for objective information.

Do not rely on what a salesperson says to you about a product, neither the glossy flyers. Look for objective, research-based information to evaluate a product’s claims. To get reliable information about a particular supplement:

Ask your pharmacist. Even if they don’t know about a specific supplement, they may be able to point you to the latest guidance about its uses and risks.

Look for scientific research findings. Two good sources include the National Centre for Complementary

and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements. Both have websites that provide information to help consumers make informed choices about dietary supplements.

Contact the manufacturer. If you have questions about a specific product, call the manufacturer or distributor. Ask to talk with someone who can answer questions, such as what data the company has to substantiate its products’ claims. If the answers given seem to come from a brochure, chances are they have.

If you have health issues, it’s essential that you talk with your doctor before trying herbal supplements. In fact, in some high-risk situations, your doctors will likely recommend that you avoid herbal supplements altogether.

It’s especially important that you talk to your doctor before using herbal supplements if:

You’re taking prescription or over-the- counter medications. Some herbs can cause serious side effects when mixed with prescription and OTC drugs, such as aspirin, blood thinners or blood pressure medications. Talk to your doctor about possible interactions.

You’re pregnant or breast-feeding. Medications that may be safe for you as an adult may be harmful to your fetus or your breast-feeding infant. As a general rule, don’t take any medications — prescription, OTC or herbal — when you’re pregnant or breast-feeding unless your doctor approves.

You’re having surgery. Many herbal supplements can affect the success of surgery. Some may decrease the effectiveness of anesthetics or cause dangerous

complications, such as bleeding or high blood pressure. Tell your doctor about any herbs you’re taking or considering taking as soon as you know you need surgery.

You’re younger than 18 or older than 65. Older adults may metabolise medications differently. And few herbal supplements have been tested on children or have established safe doses for children.

After you are sure about the quality of an herbal product, remember these guidelines:

Don’t exceed recommended dosages or take the herb for longer than recommended.

Take only one supplement at a time to determine if it’s effective. Make a note of what you take — and how much for how long — and how it affects you.

Do proper research before you take new brands. Herbal products from some European countries are highly regulated and standardised. But toxic ingredients and prescription drugs have been found in supplements manufactured elsewhere, particularly China, India and Mexico.

The FDA and NCCAM maintain lists of supplements that are under regulatory review or that have been reported to cause adverse effects. Check their websites periodically for updates.

If the product you are interested in is not found, when you do your searches, it may be sensible not to use it. If all you are seeing as an ingredient is “propriety blend” be wary.

The price of a product does not necessarily guarantee its quality.

Would I go back to Long Pond? Sure I would.

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