A guide to herbal remedies

Description

Herbal remedies are plants used like a medicine. People use herbal remedies to help prevent or cure disease. They use them to get relief from symptoms, boost energy, relax, or lose weight.

Herbals are not regulated or tested like medicines.

How can you know what you are getting and if it is useful? This guide can help you choose and use herbals safely.

Herbals are not Medicines

You have to be careful when using an herbal remedy. Herbal remedies are a type of dietary supplement. They are not medicines. Here are some things you should know about herbals:

  • Herbals are not regulated like medicines.
  • Herbals do not need to be rigidly tested before they are sold.
  • Herbals may not work as claimed.
  • Labels do not need to be approved. It may not list the correct amount of an ingredient.
  • Some herbal remedies may contain ingredients or contaminants not listed on the label.

Natural Does not Mean Safe

Many people think that using plants to treat illness is safer than taking medicine. People have been using plants in folk medicine for centuries. So it is easy to see the appeal. Yet "natural" does not mean safe. Unless taken as directed, some herbals can interact with other medicines or be toxic at high doses. Also, some may cause side effects.

Here are some examples:

  • Kava is an herb used for anxiety, insomnia, symptoms of menopause, and other ailments. Some studies show it may work for anxiety. But kava can also cause severe liver damage. The FDA has issued a warning against its use.
  • St. John's Wort may work for mild to moderate depression. However, it can interact with birth control pills, antidepressants, and other drugs. It can also cause side effects such as stomach upset and anxiety.
  • Yohimbe is a bark used to treat erectile dysfunction. The bark can cause high blood pressure, increased heart rate, anxiety, and other side effects. It can interact with certain medicines for depression. Taking it in high does or for a long time can be dangerous.

Of course, some herbals have been tested and work well for their intended purpose. Many are also quite safe, but the word "natural" will not tell you which ones are safe and which ones are not safe.

How to Choose and Use Herbal Remedies Safely

Some herbals can make you feel better and help keep you healthy. But you need to be a smart consumer. Use these tips when choosing herbal remedies.

  • Look closely at the claims made about the product. How is the product described? Is it a "miracle" pill that "melts away" fat? Will it work faster than regular care? Is it a secret your doctor and drug companies don't want you to know? Such claims are red flags. If something's too good to be true, it probably is not.
  • Remember "real-life stories" are not scientific proof. Many products are promoted with real-life stories. Even if the quote comes from a doctor, there's no proof that other people will get the same results.
  • Before trying a product, talk with your health care provider. Ask for his or her opinion. Is the product safe? What are the chances it will work? Are their risks? Will it interact with other medicines? Will it interfere with your treatment?
  • Buy only from companies that have certification on the label, such as "USP Verified" or "ConsumerLab.com Approved Quality." Companies with these certifications agree to test the purity and quality of their products.
  • DO NOT give herbal supplements to children or use them if you are older than 65. Talk to your provider first.
  • DO NOT use herbals without talking to your provider if you are taking any medicines.
  • DO NOT use them if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • DO NOT use them if you are having surgery.
  • Always let your provider know what herbals you use. They can affect the medicines you take as well any treatment you receive.

Where to Get More Information

These sites can help you learn more about specific herbal supplements:

References

American Cancer Society: "Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?" www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002385-pdf.pdf. Accessed September 16, 2015.

Jordan S, Cunningham D, Marles R. Assessment of herbal medicinal products: Challenges, and opportunities to increase the knowledge base for safety assessment. Toxicology Appl Pharmacol. March 2010;243(2):198-216. PMID: 20018204 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20018204.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Using Dietary Supplements Wisely. nccih.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm. Accessed September 16, 2015.

Zhang J, Wider B, Shang H, Li X, Ernst E. Qualities of herbal medicines: challenges and solutions. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2012 Feb-Apr;20(1-2): 100-6. PMID: 22305255 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22305255.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
Copyright Information A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2008 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.