Do you know what is in your herbal supplements?
This is an ongoing question that is asked by consumers every day. The question itself arises because currently there are no FDA regulations for herbal supplements. Manufacturers are legally allowed to put their products on the shelf without reporting their purity levels to anyone.
So how do you know if what the label says is actually what the product contains?
The short answer is: you don’t.
What are Herbal Supplements?
According to familydoctor.org “A botanical is a plant or part of a plant that people use to try to stay healthy or to treat health conditions and illnesses. A herbal health product or supplement (also called a botanical product) is a type of dietary supplement that contains one or more herbs.”
An herbal supplement is an over-the-counter (OTC) item that can be purchased at many local locations and even online.
What Herbal Supplements are Not
Because herbal supplements are not classified as a food or drug, they are not subject to pre-sale testing by the FDA. It also means they are not allowed to make medical claims such as “lowers cholesterol” or “prevents heart attacks”. You should completely avoid any OTC supplement that makes such claims on their label.
What are the Benefits of Herbal Supplements?
The benefits to herbals when used correctly and in the right dosage can be numerous. They can help alleviate pain, help you sleep or even help keep you alert and focused.
Scientists are conducting new studies regularly, and we are finding new uses for botanical products as supplements.
Are There Risks?
As with anything you ingest or apply topically, there are always risks. The most common include:
- Drug interactions
- Combining supplements
- Substitution for prescription medications
- Taking too much
Health risks include everything from a mild rash or allergic reactions to liver problems, strokes, or even death. You should always talk to a doctor before taking a herbal supplement to ensure your risks are small.
Supplements are Considered Safe
Anyone can put a capsule in a bottle and slap a label on it and sell it to you tomorrow. As far as the FDA is concerned, that pill is considered safe until proven otherwise.
The FDA handles drugs in an entirely opposite way; drugs are considered unsafe until proven otherwise.
What does this mean to you? It should mean you need to be extremely cautious when purchasing supplements. Many studies have found that herbal supplements just clearly are not what they claim to be.
Some instances list a single ingredient and were found not to contain any of that ingredient at all. Other studies have found trace amounts of the listed ingredient and filler or unknown drugs in the capsules instead.
It Is Alarming
The term “buyer beware” has never been more prominent. You never really know what you are getting unless you do your research first.
Despite the known issues the FDA is still not responsible for ensuring the content and safety of a supplement. The manufacturers are. The FDA only gets involved when reports claim a manufacturer or their supplement are not factual.
Unless you want to be a company’s guinea pig, you should thoroughly research all supplements and their manufacturers.
If They Are for Sale, they are Safe, Right?
Absolutely not. The FDA only requires that manufacturers list their ingredients, business information and serving size. They only step in and conduct tests if there are reported problems.
Just because an item is in your local pharmacy or store does not mean it is safe to consume.
You truly never know what you are getting. But you can find out.
What Can You Do?
The first step is being a proactive and conscientious consumer.
- Always read the labels
- Ask questions
- Seek professional medical advice
You can also be proactive in your learning. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements are both great resources for looking up any scientific research done on supplements.
Don’t be afraid to call the manufacturer and ask for any reports that back up the claims of their supplements.
Ask your doctor. While your doctor may not know about your exact supplement brand or manufacturer, they can give you advice and warnings about them.
You should also avoid tainted or possibly tainted supplements. The warnings for a potentially contaminated supplement are:
- Anything that claims to work the same as a prescription drug
- Supplements marketed in a foreign language
- Supplements that make promises of sexual improvement, weight loss or muscle building
- A product claiming to be a legal alternative to an illegal drug, such as steroids.
Take Control and Always be Cautious
Your health and safety are of the utmost importance. You should always talk to a doctor before starting any herbal supplement to ensure it is safe to take and won’t have any adverse effects on your health.
Always read the label and if you are ever in doubt, do not take it. Do your research and use websites such as the Dietary Supplement Label Database to check ingredients.
You should also avoid supplements if you are pregnant or nursing; including topical applications. There is no real way to be sure the herbal is safe for the baby or the mother; you should avoid them entirely.
If you are under 16-years or over 65, you should also avoid taking herbal supplements. The body goes through many chemical changes in those age ranges and this could prove enough to cause an adverse reaction.
Also, if you are having surgery, it is advised to avoid herbal supplements altogether. If you currently take any, you should talk to your doctor and cease taking the supplements two weeks or more before a scheduled surgery.
Herbal supplements can offer aid for many issues. However, you should always be wary before starting a supplement regimen. The key is in the name: supplement. They should never replace meals or medication prescribed by a doctor.