Things You Should Know Before Taking Herbal Supplements

Health Writer

In the past few weeks we have discussed alternative treatments for anxiety:

Passionflower for Treating Generalized Anxiety

Can Kava Help Social Anxiety?

and Merely Me recently posted about herbal supplements to stay away from, according to Consumer Reports.

How do you know if an herbal supplement is safe? What should you know before taking supplements? I have compiled 8 things you should know before adding herbal supplements to your treatment plan.

Herbal supplements are not always safe.I know we think of them as "all natural" and therefore safe, but that isn't always the case. A few weeks ago, I explained the warnings associated with Kava and according to the Consumer Reports article Merely Me discussed, the supplements listed can actually be dangerous.

Herbal supplements can have side effects. When we think of side effects, we normally think of prescription medication, but over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements have side effects as well. Supplements can cause common side effects, such as headache, stomach ache or sleepiness but can also cause more dangerous side effects such as increased heart rate, increased risk of stroke. If you want to know more about the possible side effects of a specific supplement, the U.S. National Insititutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements has fact sheets on each supplement.

Herbal supplements can interfere with the efficiency of your current prescription medications. For example, St. John's Wort can reduce the absorbtion of some medications. This means when you take your prescribed dose, your body is absorbing less and you are not receiving the full dose. This can cause serious problems.

Herbal supplements can cause interactions with your current medications. Some medications cause dangerous interactions when taken together and the same is true for herbal supplements and medications.

Herbal supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but not in the same way as prescription medications. Manufacturers do not need to get FDA approval before selling or marketing a product. Once it is being sold the FDA does regulate safety of supplements. If they find a product to be unsafe they can issue a warning to the manufacturer and, if needed, take the product off the market.

Herbal supplement manufacturers are not required to submit evidence proving effectiveness to the FDA. It is up to the consumer to make sure the information claimed by the manufacturer is true. You can do this by speaking directly with your doctor or pharmacist, looking for scientific and evidence based studies rather than relying on testimonials and contacting the manufacturer or distributor to request additional information.

Herbal supplements are required to list ingredients and other information on the label. According to the FDA, labels for supplements must include

  • The supplement's name
  • Information on the manufacturer or distributor, including name and address
  • All ingredients
  • What the active ingredient is, what the serving size is and the amount

People with certain health conditions are at higher risk of adverse reactions when taking herbal supplements. These include:

  • Women who are pregnant or nursing

  • People who are planning to have surgery

  • Individuals over the age of 65 or younger than 18

  • Individuals taking medication for mental illness, seizures, blood thinning, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions or cancer.   If you are thinking of, or planning, to take an herbal supplement, keep the following in mind:

  • Always follow directions on the label, don't exceed the recommended dose and don't take longer than suggested.

  • Take only one supplement at a time and record how you feel, any side effects you experience and how your condition is affected.

  • Do your research. Read about the supplement, find out about any previous claims against the supplement. the U.S. National Insititutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements has fact sheets and additional information, including supplements that are being investigated, on each supplement.

  • Be careful with supplements manufactured outside of the U.S. Some countries have strict guidelines for the manufacture of herbal supplements but others do not. Some toxic substances have been found in a few supplements manufactured in other countries.

Always speak with your doctor before taking herbal supplements. Treat these as you would medication, list all supplements when asked what medications you are currently taking and let your pharmacist know which supplements you are taking when he is filling any prescription so he can make you aware of any possible interactions with your prescription medication.

You should always talk with your doctor before taking an herbal supplement.


U.S. Department of Agriculture: Dietary Supplements

National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine

Tips For The Savvy Supplement User: Making Informed Decisions And Evaluating Information