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How Safe are Herbal Supplements?

Updated on July 10, 2016

Herbs can be extremely beneficial if used correctly. They can also cause harm if used incorrectly.


All Natural Is Popular

The past several years have given rise to the popularity of herbal supplement use in America’s effort to become healthier. Herbal supplements have grown in popularity mostly due to the highly marketed perception of being “all natural”, which leads consumers to believe that “all natural” also means safe. The problem with this way of thinking is that it leads consumers to make this assumption based on very little information. None of the information that is provided consists of facts on the particular herb’s composition, strength, exact dosage, possible side effects or even worse adverse reactions of taken with prescription medications or certain foods. The reason for this lack of reliable data is because herbal supplements have no regulations requiring this information and lack of these regulations is due to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration considers them food items and not medication. Due to this lack of consideration from the FDA, consumers have very little information about herbal supplements except what is commercially publicized by manufactures. The Food and Drug Administration should formulate and enforce better regulations on the n=manufacturing, marketing and use of herbal supplements because lack of these regulations greatly increases the risk of injury and possible death.

Make Sure What You're Getting

The Market

In my research I found claims that “the dietary supplement industry is regulated according to the highest standards for safety and quality”-American Herbal Products Association ( This statement refers to quality assurance in manufacturing of the herb and consists of proper training, supervision and hygiene of employees, proper management of any potential contaminants, adequate sanitation of all areas of the facility and consistent record keeping to verify the integrity of the product. All of these standards are vary important but are only what should be required of any consumer-based product. In fact, products such as dog food or shaving cream don’t carry the word “supplement” in their name but still have to adhere to similar quality control according to government standards. Claims have been made documented, although not substantiated, suggesting that work is currently being done with the FDA to establish more complete and effective regulations for herbal products. These suggested regulations are for quality control and consistency of ingredients, documentation of retail history of each herb, and establishment of adequate return policies for herbal products. Another claim has been made stating that the association has published guidelines for standardizing labeling by establishing a single common name for each herb placed on the market. All of these claims suggest that a significant effort is being made to eliminate the problems surrounding herbal use. Evidence of this effort remains to be seen partly due to the fact that products sold under different names, even in the names are similar, are not necessarily that same product. The lack of standardized naming of herbal supplements weakens the effectiveness that could be possible by establishing product consistency regulations. The documentation continues and the inconsistent manner in which they are produced and marketed increases this confusion.

The one fact that we can all rely on is that the general public will always, at one time or another, self diagnose. Self-diagnosis and treating with a product that may help one body system, for example the immune or circulatory systems, and harm another or even cause problems within the same body system can cause serious complications and even death. This possible danger becomes evident when one takes into consideration that many individual do not assess each body system when deciding to begin herbal therapy. Most people do not realize that doing this is even important because they don’t know that a single herb can affect several different systems at once. Still another hazard is that risk of toxicity when herbs interact with other medications. Interactions can increase the intended effect of the drug, create the opposite effect or neutralize the drug altogether. Because there are no regulations on herbal supplements, companies can make vague and invalidated claims about them regarding their benefits and potential risk, which further leads to confusion for the consumer.


What's Needed

As a registered nurse I have had many patients admit to the use of herbs only after direct questioning. Almost none of these patients mentioned herbal use during a routine health history interview because non-prescription, “natural” supplements did not seem of any importance to mention. This fact leads to the realization that these patients are also not under the supervision of a doctor for their herbal therapy. All this makes patient education difficult because the nurse has to be very careful to always ask specific and detailed questions about herbal use and to never assume that the patient will give that important information on their own.

More comprehensive labeling techniques would help to alleviate the confusion consumers have about the safe use of herbs in their dietary regimen. Labels should give information to the herbs composition because these supplements can be produced from several different forms. Herbal supplements can be derived form different parts of the plant or even different species of plant. Each different form gives the herb a different strength and affects the dosage that should be used according Next, side effects should be listed beside the manufacturer’s state benefits. All herbal supplement users should be aware of the side effects as well as the adverse reactions, whether major or minor, of the product they use. I have personally found only a few supplement labels that have printed warnings to consumers not to take the herb with any prescription medication and to consult a doctor if adverse reactions occur. Such labels are not found with all supplements and are not required of any. Furthermore, adverse reactions are not listed or specified for each individual herbal supplement which is a serious omission because of the fact that not all adverse reactions are obvious or seen by the naked eye. Some adverse reactions are very dangerous but go unnoticed until serious damage or even death occurs.


Good and Bad

Such dangers exist in one particular herbal supplement known as Ephedrine. Ephedrine is an herb that was once used to assist in weight loss and to enhance athletic performance. It was sold under many different names and had been used by those who believed it would burn fat and increase energy. Side effects included stomach upset, heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety with the more serious adverse reaction of hemorrhagic stroke. Some side effects can be noticed fairly easy but, unfortunately, is a hemorrhagic stroke, otherwise none as a brain bleed, develops it is not noticed until irreversible damage or death occurs.

Many herbal supplements have been known to be very beneficial, especially if taken to enhance the immune system such as Echinacea to fight bacterial infections, Maitake for fungi and viruses and Astragalus used to improve energy. Unfortunately, in America, we tend to hold the philosophy that “if a little is good than a lot must be better”. This view regarding herbal supplementation could have toxic and devastating results for consumers. There are many popular herbs that claim to have beneficial effects but have been noted to cause problematic side effects even with moderate dosing regimens. One highly used herb that can exhibit such a problem is Ginkgo. According to the AJN (American Journal of Nursing) this herb can cause blood clotting problems, nausea, vomiting, retinal bleeding and brain bleed. Here is a short list of other herbs that can significant problems: St. Johns Wort-aggrevate existing heat condition, Ginseng-stomach upset and interferes with antidepressants, Garlic-interferes with blood clotting, Goldenseal-can raise blood pressure and cause stomach upset.

More To Be Done

More attention has been given to this concern when Canada implemented its own regulations to ensure manufactures be required to conduct clinical tests to prove uniformity and consistency of product as well as fully detailed labels. This is promising but the fact that there are still online pharmacies that can still sell to consumers without following these standards shows there’s still more that needs to be done to protect the consumer.

Until adequate regulations are put into place to require manufacturers to print this information on their product labels, consumers will not know the possible danger they are putting themselves into each time they take a “natural supplement”. So, buyer beware! Herbs can be extremely beneficial is used correctly. The key is, as with everything, to educate yourself thoroughly before starting any type of therapy, medical or herbal therapy.

Going To The Doctor

When asked about your medical history and medications, do you include any herbal supplements you may be taking?

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© 2012 cammyshawn


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