Just because something is an herbal supplement or says “natural” on the label, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us.
A few months ago, I covered some products for men that had been in the news. Men were dying and having major health issues while trying “natural” supplements to help improve their sexual performance.
What many consumers do not realize is that most herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA. There is typically a small statement on products indicating this, but for many people, the word natural has become synonymous with healthy. At worst, some supplements can be truly harmful or life-threatening if taken improperly; others are simply ineffective.
Many cultures, including tribal cultures native to America, have relied on herbal medicine for a variety of health concerns for generations. There are valid, helpful remedies to be found within these herbs, so how do we differentiate between what’s helpful and what’s snake oil (or worse)?
A few things to consider if you would like to incorporate herbs into your wellness plan:
1. Find a knowledgeable practitioner.
Many DOs (Doctors of Osteopathy) take major insurance plans and are able to prescribe and explain herbal supplementation in addition to prescribing medication. Homeopathic and Naturopathic physicians, Traditional Chinese Medicine professionals and acupuncturists or certified herbalists are also knowledgeable on both herbs and which herbal preparations would best suit your needs.
2. Go with what’s been tested.
Most people have at least heard of echinacea. There are many reputable echinacea preparations that are widely available to help boost the immune system at the onset of a cold. While the amounts and duration are something to discuss with your health care provider, the point is that this is a familiar herb which has received a great deal of peer-reviewed testing. If you go with something more unknown or untested, you run the same risks you would with an experimental drug.
3. Buy from a reputable company.
As with many things, cheaper isn’t better. If you see a holistic practitioner, he or she may be able to recommend a specific company in addition to specific herbs and dosages. If not, do your homework. Does the company have a website? Does the website include information or links to peer-reviewed literature on the safety and efficacy of the herbs. As we saw with some of the dubious sexual supplements, what it says on the bottle may not be what’s actually inside. Fooling around with disreputable companies to get something cheaper or faster may have serious consequences.
4. Incorporate simple herbs that are generally regarded as safe.
There are many simple things we can do with herbs and spices that boost our health. Cinnamon has been shown to help keep blood sugar on an even keel. Peppermint tea is great for an upset stomach. Turmeric (which is popular in Indian food) is growing in its reputation in the West as an immune system booster. I love making tea with ginger and cayenne to help with a sore throat or stuffy nose. All of these are simple, low-risk ways to boost our health through natural means.
Many of us would like to choose something natural, but natural on a label doesn’t really mean anything specific. The best way to approach the use of herbs is like you would any chemically-based medication: get advice from a health care provider you trust, do your research, and use it sparingly. Herbal medicine can be a wonderful way to attend to your health — if you do it wisely.
Photo credit: Flickr / SuperFantastic