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Herbs may be natural -- but that doesn't mean they're without risk. Understand the pros and cons before taking herbs.

About Herbs

Centuries of experience, and a number of recent formal studies, indicate that there are herbs which may be beneficial to health. Certain herbs may be detrimental -- especially when combined with certain medications.

Herbs are not regulated by the FDA because they are classified as "dietary supplements."

There is currently no way for the consumer to be sure that herbal pills are what they say they are.

  • The manufacturing process is not regulated and there is no standardization.
  • There is no way to know if a plant's active ingredients, whatever they are, have ended up in the herbal pills you purchase.
  • There is no easy to know if a dosage level is correct, much less correct for you.
  • You can't even be sure that the pills are the same within a bottle, or from bottle to bottle.

Steps To Take Before Taking Any Herb

Step 1. Determine what the herb is supposed to do.

  • Speak with a doctor who is familiar with herbs or with a naturopath (a person to uses herbs, food, exercise, heat, etc. to assist the natural healing processes).
  • Research on the internet. For example, see the information about herbs provided by Memorial Sloan Kettering at: About Herbs offsite link. Also see The Internet: Respected Comprehensive Sites.
  • An interesting book which looks at herbs from an evidence based point of view is EVIDENCE-BASED HERBAL MEDICINE by Michael Rotblatt, MD PharmD, and Irwin Ziment, MD, FRCP, Philadlephia: Henley & Belfus 2002.

Step 2. Find out about maximum and minimum doses, and possible risks.

  • You can order personalized report on the interaction between herbs and drugs you are taking for $20 for up to 10 drugs at offsite link.
  • Check with the Herb Research Foundation at offsite link

Step 3. Check with your doctor to be sure there is no negative interaction with your drugs or treatments. For example, when you receive chemotherapy and suppress your immune system, herbs can kill because they may contain fungi and bacteria that are hard to isolate and treat.

Step 4. Check the claims and warnings on the label.

  • While labels are not allowed to claim that the herb cures or prevent a disease, check with the manufacturer for evidence to support what the labels do say. 
  • Consider speaking with a naturopathic physician -- a doctor who has studied natural remedies. S/he can do a work-up of your system, and suggest appropriate herbs or other supplements, in addition to prescription drugs.
  • Keep in mind that just because an herb is expensive, it does not necessarily mean that it is better.

Step 5. Keep in mind the following recommendations from Consumer Reports which did a study in this area:

  •  Pregnant and nursing women should not take herbal supplements unless their doctor gives the green light.
  • Start with small doses.
  • Buy herbs that at least claim to be "standardized."
  • Stick to single-herb products, not combinations whose actions are difficult to sort out
  • Be alert to the herb's effects, both positive and negative.
  • Stop immediately if there is a problem, and call your doctor.

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