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Herbal Supplements: Panacea or Poison?

If you've ever reached for an ibuprofen to ail a headache, you're a product of Western heathcare. The emergence of herbal supplements to ease health woes comes directly from the old East, and it's challenging the new West. 

As Sanjay Gupta reported in a Time.com article called “Herbal Remedies’ Potential Dangers,” use of herbal supplements has risen 83 percent between 2006 and 2008. And according to the American Botanical Council, national sales of herbal supplements almost doubled between 2008 and 2009. Herbal supplements are touted endlessly, and seemingly innocently, as remedies and health aids for a variety of ailments—from head colds and the flu to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease. But very few of these consumers, and certainly not the multibillion-dollar industry, are asking many questions about whether these herbal supplements have any true effect on the symptoms and illnesses for which they are being taken, and furthermore, if the supplements themselves are safe for extended consumption.

Herbal Remedies or Maladies?
In May 2010, the New York Times published an article that stated, “Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases.”

So much for happy, healthy holistic medicine, right? Or is it just another panicky symptom of our liability-conscious society? It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, and the surfeit of contradictory information available on the Internet, and even in retail settings, means it’s hard to make a fully informed choice about what would be helpful or hurtful to your bodily temple.


The New York Times article goes on to say that the amount of the heavy metals found in the supplements—e.g., mercury, arsenic, and cadmium—“did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous.” And both Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, and Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, are of the blasé opinion that the trace amounts of metal found in herbal supplements are really nothing to worry about.

But there are other sources of concern. One is that the congressional investigation found that “16 of the 40 supplements tested contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits.” Furthermore, at least nine products made illegal health claims, such as suggesting that some herbal remedies were effective treatments for serious diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, manufacturers of herbal supplements are charged with making responsible claims about their products, and must be able to support those claims with sufficient evidence. “However,” the article states, “supplement makers aren’t required to submit this evidence to the FDA.” So basically, we the consumers are meant to take their word for it. Furthermore, herbal supplements do not come under the regulatory purview of the FDA for premarket approval. Domestic manufacturers are held to the standard of good manufacturing practices (GMPs), which are meant to ensure product safety and consistency. After the product is in market, it then falls to the FDA to monitor its safety and take appropriate action if it’s found to be unsafe—but that’s after the product has already made its way into millions of households.

Keeping Your Herbal Supplements Safe
Most supplements have not undergone the rigorous clinical testing that Western medicines are subject to, and claims about their effectiveness are therefore almost totally subjective. As a result, consumers have to do their own due diligence when making any decisions about which supplements to take, why to take them, and where to get them.

Do your homework. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what your objectives are in taking herbal supplements. In other words, don’t just rely on what the bottle of flaxseed oil, kava root, or St. John’s wort tells you. Get a couple of other expert opinions about how a supplement will benefit you and how it will or won’t interact with other medications you’re taking. Also, do your own research about any health claims a supplement is making; go so far as to call the manufacturer and ask for documentation that supports its claims, so you can get a feel for how credible the product is. (The FDA keeps a running list of supplements that are under review for in-market problems.)


Be wary of supplements manufactured outside the United States. Europe has rigorous standards in place to regulate its supplement manufacturers; China and Mexico, less so. Trace amounts of prescription drugs and other impurities have been found in supplements that originate in these countries. This is not to say that all supplements manufactured in China and Mexico are problematic; it’s just that consumers who buy these supplements should be extra vigilant about how those products are manufactured.

Buy supplements from a credible retailer. In researching this article, I took a trip to the integrative pharmacy I like to go to, this time to talk about those immunity mushrooms and other herbal health aids. It was there that I learned what “integrative” means: by providing customers with licensed pharmacists working alongside naturopathic medical specialists, nutritionists, and herbalists, among other holistic health professionals, this pharmacy offers a refreshingly broad approach to personal health. I asked the salesperson I spoke with about the reports of contaminants in herbal supplements, and about how this pharmacy and other retailers chose their wholesale partners. She ensured me her employer’s suppliers were evaluated and tested exhaustively before being deemed worthy of inclusion in the store. While it’s not always easy to find a full-service integrative pharmacy everywhere you go, it’s this sort of vigilance you should seek out when searching for an herbal-supplement retailer or holistic-medicine practitioner, whether it’s your pharmacy, your grocery store, your acupuncturist, or your chiropractor. 

Keep It Real
There are a lot of people in the world who swear by herbal remedies and holistic medicines and the power of spiritual healing. There are also a lot of people who will tell you to avoid all that crazy mumbo-jumbo and take a bunch of antibiotics and keep on hand no fewer than three prescriptions for maladies real and imagined. As always, everyone will find his or her own best way, very likely in between these two extreme health ideologies. The human race thrived without the help of aspirin, Xanax, or NyQuil (though the benefits of penicillin can’t really be argued with) for century upon century. Ancient civilizations based the health of their citizenry on shamans, charms, and herbs. Clearly, there’s some connection between human biology and that of the flora we have lived among throughout our history. We are lucky to live in a society that has room for the best of both the old East and the new West. The two can indeed coexist not only in the same retail setting, but also in the human body. It’s just more important than ever to be careful about how you situate those bedfellows. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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