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Herbal Supplements That Do More Harm than Good

Updated on January 9, 2018
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Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, an industrial engineer, a mother of two, and a published sci-fi and horror author.


Herbal supplements are the modern incarnation of the herbs used throughout history to treat various health problems and diseases.

Herbal supplements have a varied history. Some of our greatest medicines originated as herbal medicines. Aspirin was salicylic acid derived from willow trees. Paclitaxel, the main ingredient in the breast cancer treatment Taxol, comes from the Pacific yew tree.

This doesn’t mean that all herbal remedies are safe, and too many people use herbal remedies without consideration for the risks that come from combining it with different modern drugs.

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s wort is an herbal treatment for mild depression. The University of Maryland Medical Center says they work as well as elective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors for mild depression.

The risk of relying on St. John’s wort is that it doesn’t alter dangerous thought patterns associated with depression that can cause suicide or self-harm. Furthermore, using herbs like St. John’s wort instead of seeking a medical professional’s help could leave you stuck in a bad life situation like an abusive partner, social isolation or oppressive work environment.

Taking herbal supplements like St. John’s wort as a self-help solution means you don’t get the counseling you may need to actually improve your life or properly diagnose disorders like depression, long term pain or bipolar disorder.

St. John’s wort isn’t as safe as it is said to be. Many women have learned the hard way that it alters your hormonal balance, interfering with birth control pills. It can also inhibit the anti-rejection drugs taken by those who have had an organ transplant.

Gingko is popular among the older population because of its purported benefits in delaying dementia.
Gingko is popular among the older population because of its purported benefits in delaying dementia. | Source

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo has been promoted as a memory enhancer, cure for high blood pressure and decrease hypertension. Unfortunately, repeated studies have found that it works no better than a placebo in any of these cases.

Ginkgo is one of the most thoroughly studied herbal supplements on the market. While it has been proven no better than a placebo in most regards, it is still rather safe. The one exception is the seed form. Never consume Ginkgo seeds – this can cause seizures and even death.

Maintaining a healthy weight, preventing high blood pressure and maintaining healthy blood sugar (and preventing diabetes in the first place) will do far more to stave off dementia than taking Ginkgo.


Ma-Huang, also called ephedra, is used for everything from treating colds to aiding weight loss. This herb is a stimulant. It will suppress appetite and raise your heart rate. However, it has caused fatal heart attacks in a number of cases, and it has caused blackouts, blood pressure spikes and heart rhythm abnormalities. Ephedra was blamed for the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher in 2003 among others.

Do not take ephedra if you are taking any other stimulant like many diet drugs, appetite suppressants or heart medications. Avoid taking ephedra and any other stimulant if you enjoy energy drinks, since those also contain stimulants.


Yohimbe is a west African tree whose bark is used to treat erectile dysfunction. It was certainly more effective than rhino horn, bear paw and other treatments touted by Chinese medicine. While Yohimbe does increase blood flow and blood pressure, improving the odds of an erection, the stimulatory effect does bring dangers.

Yohimbe has caused dangerous spikes in blood pressure which are downright dangerous for men with heart disease or diabetes. It raises the heart rate and can trigger tremors. In rare cases, it can cause death.

It is probably safer to go to the doctor and get that Viagra prescription than take a chance with Yohimbe.


Kava is another herb primarily used to treat depression and anxiety. For women who have gone through menopause, the National Institutes for Health found it worked in as little as one week. Conversely, it should not be taken by women who are pregnant or nursing. It can worsen depression in some patients, and it should not be taken when the baby’s brain is developing.

In contrast, Kava poses a risk to your liver. The University of Maryland Medical Center website says that kava is linked to at least twenty five reports of severe liver damage, including at least one case that necessitated a liver transplant.

And with many anti-anxiety drugs, you should not take kava with alcohol.


Comfrey compresses were once as common as gel cold packs and Band-Aids today. Comfrey is supposed to reduce swelling and inflammation. It was used to treat injuries and swollen tissues. Comfrey is sometimes used as a general health tonic.

Comfrey is toxic to the liver when taken in large doses. It is so bad that the FDA recommended that all comfrey products removed from the market in 2001.

Health guru Dr. Andrew Weil suggests using comfrey as a compress for diabetic ulcers and other wounds that won’t heal, but to never take it internally.


Garlic reduces your cholesterol levels naturally. National Cancer Institute studies showed that regularly consuming garlic had a protective effect on the prostate. It also thins your blood. The danger comes in if you are taking blood thinners and take garlic supplements on top of that.

A safer way to lower your cholesterol is to enjoy a large bowl of oatmeal instead, if not a tasty but more expensive Fiber One bar.


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