Healthy food and nutrition [2019 Updated]
Herbal supplements: What to know before purchasing
Regulations ensure that herbal supplements comply with production standards but do not guarantee that they are safe or effective. Do your homework before you buy.
Echinacea for the prevention of cold. Enhancement of Ginkgo memory. Lower flaxseed cholesterol. The list of herbal remedies continues.
Herbal supplements, sometimes referred to as botanicals, are available to purchase one type of dietary supplement. Herbal supplements are not new — plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. However, herbal supplements have generally not been subject to the same scientific scrutiny and are not as strictly regulated as drugs.
For example, while herbal supplement manufacturers must follow good manufacturing practices–to ensure that supplements are consistent and meet quality standards–before their products are placed on the market, they do not need Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
All herbs, however, may have medicinal effects, including herbal supplements labeled “natural.” Everything strong enough to produce a positive effect such as lower cholesterol or better mood is also strong enough to bear risk.
So before you buy it is important to look at the potential benefits and side effects of herbal supplements. And make sure you talk to your doctor, especially if you take drugs, have chronic health problems, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Are herbal supplements safe?
Herbal supplements, although not as drugs or food, are regulated by the FDA. They fall into a category called nutritional supplements. The rules for dietary supplements are as follows:
Before selling dietary supplements, manufacturers do not have to seek FDA approval.
Companies can argue that products address a nutrient deficiency, promote health or are related to corporate functions — if they have research in support and include a disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated the claim. Companies are not permitted to make a particular medical claim.
An example of a certain medical claim could be: “This herb reduces the frequency of urination because of an enlarged prostate.”
Manufacturers have to follow good production practices to ensure that supplements are consistently processed and meet quality standards. These regulations are intended to avoid supplementation of the incorrect ingredients and contaminants and to ensure that the correct ingredients are included in adequate amounts.
The FDA is responsible for monitoring on the market dietary supplements. If a product is found unsafe by the FDA, it can take action against the manufacturer, distributor or both and warn against or require the removal from the market of the product.
The following regulations ensure that:
- Herbal supplements comply with certain quality standards
- The FDA may intervene to remove dangerous products
However, the rules do not ensure that herbal supplements are safe for anyone to use.
These products may pose unexpected risks, as many additives contain active ingredients with a strong body effect. For example, taking herbal supplements in combination with prescribed medicines could lead to harmful, even life-threatening results.
It is important to talk to your doctor before using herbal supplements.
How do you know what’s in herbal supplements?
The FDA requires this information on the labels of all herbal supplements:
- Name of the herbal supplement
- Name and address of the manufacturer or distributor
- A list of components, either in the Supplement Facts Panel or listed below.
- Serving size, quantity and active ingredient
Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you don’t understand anything on a supplement label. Using a database of food supplements available on the National Institute of Health website is an easy way to compare products with ingredients.
The database contains information about ingredients sold for thousands of dietary supplements in the United States. You can inspect products by brand name, application, active ingredient or manufacturer.
Who should not use herbal supplements?
If you have health problems, you need to talk to your doctor before trying herbal supplements. In some high – risk situations, your doctor will probably recommend that you avoid herbal supplements completely.
It is particularly important that you talk to your doctor about herbal supplements if:
You are taking prescription or OTC medicines. Some herbs may have serious side effects when mixed with prescription and OTC drugs such as aspirin, blood thinners, or blood pressure medication. Discuss possible interactions with your physician.
You’re pregnant or breast-fed. Medicines that can be safe for you as an adult can harm your fetus or infant with breastfeeding. In general, if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, do not take medicines— prescription, OTC or herbal — unless your doctor approves you.
You have an operation. Many herbal supplements can influence the success of surgery. Some may decrease anesthetic efficacy or cause risky complications, such as bleeding or hypertension. Tell your doctor if you are taking herbs or plan to take them as soon as you know you need surgery.
You are under the age of 18 or older than 65. Few herbal supplements have been tested on children or safe doses have been established for children. And older adults can metabolize medicines differently.
Safety tips for herbal supplements
If you have done your homework and plan to test a herbal supplement, use these tips to make it safe:
- Follow further instructions. Do not override recommended doses or take more of the herb than recommended.
- Keep track of what you are taking. Take only one addition at a time to determine if it is effective. Notice what you take–and how long it lasts–and how much it affects you. Stop taking the supplement if it is not effective or if it fails to achieve your goals.
- Choose your brand wisely. Stick to independently tested brands such as ConsumerLab.com or the USA. Pharmacopoeia Convention (USP).
- Check for warnings and alerts. The FDA maintains lists of supplements under review or has reported adverse effects. Check the FDA website regularly for updates.