Herbal supplements: Do they really work?

Do your research to learn what’s safe and effective

Author: By Rani Alden Long
Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008

Your knee joints have been aching and the medication your doctor prescribed doesn’t seem to be working. You’ve heard about herbal supplements that can boost joint strength, but you aren’t sure if it’s all just hype. It’s no secret that the cost of health care is rising, and that despite higher insurance costs, many people find that their policies don’t cover enough.

It may be tempting to try an alternative remedy for cost effectiveness, not to mention avoid side effects often associated with prescription drugs. As opposed to a prescribed pharmaceutical drug, herbal supplements are natural, non-pharmaceutical, non-food substances marketed to improve health.

They are regulated as dietary supplements, rather than as medicines, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Currently, according to the FDA, manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible for establishing their own guidelines to ensure that the supplements they produce are safe and contain the ingredients listed on the label.

The FDA does not currently review or approve serving sizes, but leaves that decision to the manufacturer. The law does not require the FDA to approve the effectiveness of a dietary supplement before it reaches consumers. However, a manufacturer must not claim that its product treats or prevents a specific condition (so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!).

Which supplements are safe and which are not?
So how can consumers know what’s safe and effective and what’s not? According to Richard Huntoon, DC, of the Alternative Medicine Center in Newburgh, “[Herbal supplements] are as effective [as pharmaceuticals] if they are the pure herb. If the herb has been changed in some way, it may lose its potency and effectiveness because of the way it’s been altered.

You want to find natural whole herbs and work with a practitioner who understands the specifics of how they react with your body.” Whole herbs are natural products where no single ingredient is isolated and concentrated. Examples include cayenne, which promotes healthy digestion and circulation, and eucalyptus, which is said to help respiratory ailments.

Clinical herbal practitioners and naturopaths are trained in the same diagnostic skills as orthodox doctors, but take a more holistic approach to illness. You may want to look at the Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners (www.urhp.com) for suggestions, as well as the American Holistic Medical Association site (www.holisticmedicine.org) and American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (www.naturopathic.org).

The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine warns, “It’s important to know that just because an herbal supplement is labeled ‘natural’ does not mean it is safe or without any harmful effects. Herbal supplements can act in the same way as drugs. Therefore, they can cause medical problems if not used correctly or if taken in large amounts.”

Before combining products, it’s best to seek advice from your doctor. “Whether it’s safe to combine supplements would depend on the combination and on the person,” says Huntoon, “since not everyone reacts in the same way.”

“There is a list of contraindications – conditions or factors that increase the risks involved in using a particular product – like if you’re pregnant, nursing or very young,” explains Kitty Sherpa, owner and manager of Beacon Natural Market. She adds that barring such contraindications, most supplements can be taken in combination, but the consumer also needs to be careful if they have a medical condition or are already taking prescription medications.

The FDA also recommends that you consult your doctor if you intend to use a supplement in place of a drug, in combination with a drug, or before surgery, as effects could be adverse. “However,” says Sherpa, “there’s a much longer list of what’s safe than what’s not.” Another concern may be that an herbal remedy could lose its power after usage over a period of time. “The more you consume,” says Dr. Huntoon, “the more tolerance you develop, so dosages may change over time.”

Once you have consulted with your doctor and decided on a course of action, one glance at the shelves at the health store will tell you that there are a myriad of herbal options available; often there are several manufacturers for just one type of supplement. So how do you choose between one brand and another?
Consumers are advised to buy only reputable brands, to get advice from their practitioner and to research before they buy. Consumer Reports has a large online database available on herbs and dietary supplements.

Sherpa says that often the difference lies in which form a customer wants, whether it be capsule or
liquid. “It’s a matter of preference; sometimes people have a brand they’ve used that’s worked and
they stick to it.”Whether or not your doctor will endorse an herbal supplement depends on the herb, your current health and your medical history. “Your practitioner should be able to explain why something is necessary or not necessary,” says Dr. Huntoon.

When 45-year-old Susan Kerr of Hopewell Junction was diagnosed with chronic hives five years ago, she was given a prescription by an allergy specialist for Zyrtec to ease the itching and inflammation of this allergic condition. “My doctor told me that until I figured out what I was allergic to – which would probably never happen because there were so many variables – I would have to stay on a regimen of prescription medication. The problem was, I was still getting hives. That’s when I started looking into alternative medicines.”

By researching online and asking her chiropractor, who is knowledgeable about alternative treatments, Kerr learned that the herb quercetin is often used to treat allergic reactions. After taking the herb in pill form for a few weeks, Kerr found her symptoms had eased dramatically. She continues the daily regimen to this day.

You may find that herbal remedies are an effective replacement for pharmaceuticals, or it may be that you will want to use a prescribed medicine but would also like to try dietary supplements. A happy alternative may be integrative medicine – a combination of mainstream and alternative medicine. If your doctor is unfamiliar or unwilling to step outside of mainstream medicine, while you’d like to explore alternative or integrative medicine further, you can ask him or her to refer you to a specialist who may know more about it.

Rani Long is a freelance writer living in Putnam County. This is her first feature in Hudson Valley Life.

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