12 Herbal Supplements Worth a Look

How and why to use them.
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Supplements Are Just That— Supplemental

Thinking of popping some supplements? First step: Learn about the effects (and possible side effects) of the supplement before using it. And also "keep the proper role of dietary supplements in perspective," advises Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic and the editor of the Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine (2nd Edition). Make sure you already have a nutritious diet and exercise regularly before you consider "which select herbs or supplements might have some particular benefit" for you. Also, since most dietary supplements rely on an active ingredient contained within a plant, many women assume dietary supplements are always safe to use. But as Bauer explains in Alternative Medicine, "Any product that’s strong enough to provide a potential benefit to the body can also be strong enough to cause harm." Each of the next 12 slides describes a dietary supplement— what it’s supposed to do (and whether it actually does it) and what the side effects are (if any). Dr. Bauer contributes his expert opinion along the way.


Studies have found that artichoke extract relieves nausea and abdominal pain, while also lowering cholesterol. In both cases, Bauer comments, "It may take several weeks before you notice an improvement." Side effects: Some women report experiencing flatulence. Avoid artichoke extract if you have ragweed allergies or gallstones.


Ginger has been shown to be somewhat effective in reducing the frequency and/or severity of pregnant women’s morning sickness. Ginger supplements also relieve nauseousness that stems from motion sickness, chemotherapy and surgical anesthesia. What’s more, some women find that ginger helps their arthritis or general muscle and joint pain. Side effects: When used in small doses, ginger causes very few side effects. Avoid ginger supplements if you take anticoagulant medications or if you’re pregnant and have a history of bleeding or miscarriages.


teSales of echinacea products account for roughly 10 percent of the total dietary supplement market, despite the fact that researchers still don’t know if the herb boosts the human immune system. "If you have a cold," Bauer says, "it won’t hurt you to try echinacea for a few days, but there’s no guarantee that it will help." Side effects: Echinacea doesn’t have any significant side effects, but Bauer recommends that women only use it for a maximum of eight weeks at a time.


Researchers have determined that garlic is an effective tool in treating cases of high cholesterol, heart disease and high blood blood pressure. It’s also used to prevent certain cancers. Allicin, the compound responsible for garlic’s aroma and flavor, is thought to be a powerful antioxidant. "It’s most effective when eaten raw in large amounts," Bauer counsels, but gsrlic is also available in powdered, tablet and capsule form. Side effects: Breath and body odor is the main side effect. Women who take anti-clotting drugs should avoid garlic or garlic supplements.


"Ginkgo is one of the oldest living species of tree," remarks Bauer. Its leaves and seeds have long been used for medicinal purposes, since one of ginkgo’s major components is an antioxidant and another major component is a chemical that improves blood circulation. Recent studies have disproved the popular notion that ginkgo improves memory and alertness. Side effects: The herb doesn’t have significant side effects, but Bauer advises people who take anti-clotting medication, or a thiazide diuretic, to use ginkgo sparingly.


Popular and available in many forms, flaxseed and flaxseed oil are, according to Bauer, "rich sources… of alpha-linolenic acid," a heart-healthy fatty acid. Flaxseed’s health benefits are many. People use it to: ease constipation, reduce cholesterol, manage blood sugar, and relieve symptoms of menopause. Also, the lignans in flaxseed may have cancer-fighting properties. Side effects: Bloating, gas and diarrhea. Avoid taking it in conjunction with other supplements, as flaxseed may lower the body’s ability to absorb medications.


"The [ginseng] root sometimes resembles a human body because of stringy offshoots that look like arms and legs," Bauer points out. It was probably that resemblance, which led ancient Chinese medical practitioners to see the herb as a cure-all. In the present day, researchers believe ginseng supplements may reduce your vulnerability to certain cancers; increase your energy level, help with heart disorders and improve mental performance. But Bauer concludes that "more research is needed before specific recommendations regarding its use can be made." . Side effects: Simply because its effects aren’t known, Dr. Bauer recommends that women take ginseng for no longer than three months at a time. Avoid it if you have blood pressure problems.


Either eating avocados or taking avocado supplements lowers your total cholesterol, lowers your "bad" cholesterol and increases your "good" cholesterol. Avocado oil, which you apply topically, relieves skin conditions such as sclerosis and psoriasis. Side effects: Topical preparations can cause itching, but that "typically improves with use," Bauer assures.


Cayenne, commonly known as red pepper or chili pepper, contains a compound called capsaicin, which has been found to be a pain reliever. Applied as a cream, capsaicin alloys joint and muscle pain as well as symptoms related to arthritis. When taken in tablet form, capsaicin supposedly relieves gastrointestinal problems, but "there are no studies supporting [the] effectiveness" of the cayenne supplement in its ingested form. Side effects: "Make sure to keep the cream away from your eyes, nose and mouth and wash your hands after application," Bauer warns.


"Peppermint has some benefits in treating certain digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and possibly heartburn," according to Bauer. Peppermint, when applied topically, can soothe irritated skin, depending on the nature of the irritation. Side effects: Peppermint has virtually no side effects.


Soy supplements are a great way to give your body the protein it needs while avoiding the fat and cholesterol content of meat. Soy supplements also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals. "A few studies… suggest that eating a high-soy diet may slightly decrease a woman’s risk of breast cancer," says Bauer. And consuming 20 to 60 grams of soy protein daily seems to modestly decrease the frequency and severity of hot flashes in some women. Also, "most evidence suggests that soy protein can increase bone mineral density," or in other words, it can help fend off osteoporosis. Side effects: Soy supplements are safe and free of side effects.

Green Tea

It originated in Asia, but nowadays women drink green tea all around the world, perhaps because it’s so good for you. Packed with antioxidants, green tea reduces the risk of bladder, esophageal and pancreatic cancers. And "there’s evidence that women who regularly consume green tea are at lower risk for developing ovarian cancer," Bauer adds. Dr. Bauer also informs us that "the less processed the tea leaves are, the stronger the tea’s antioxidant properties [are]. To find the good stuff, check out Asian grocery stores or specialty tea shops." In the most impressive news, a 2006 study involving 40,000 people in Japan determined that there was a direct correlation between the amount of tea people drank and how long they lived. The more green tea, the better! Side effects: Green tea doesn’t have any serious side effects.

Next: MD-Approved Home Remedies


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