Herbal Supplements Are Chemicals, Too

ashwagandha

I am confident there are many important “new” medicines waiting to be discovered in traditional/ancient medicine. However, I don’t think that herbs are a superior alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. After all, an herbal supplement isn’t simply magic–something in it makes it effective.

That something is chemicals–chemical compounds to be exact. Or more generically, “drugs”. Just like in modern medicine. So why the push for herbal remedies?

My understanding is that the assumptions are (a) a natural drug is better than a lab-made one and (b) people  wouldn’t have used a plant for centuries if it didn’t work. Here’s why I tend to disagree.

Natural is better:

  • herbs and supplements are not well-regulated by the FDA for safety or efficacy. This means there’s not guarantees that what you’re getting is (a) only or at all what the bottle states and (b) in the dosage that the bottle states. Some companies are more reputable than others; small, new miracle-herb touting companies are probably the riskiest. (Yes, the FDA asks these companies to give accurate lists of ingredients and follow safe manufacturing practices, but enforcement is spotty).
  • Most of these herbs don’t have well-established dosages, because no one has done the rigorous studies to figure out how the herb works and what the optimal dosage is. If they had, they’d likely have isolated the active chemical(s) and marketed it as a pharmaceutical drug.

Ancient wisdom must be right:

  • Placebo effect. This fun little phenomenon basically means that if you think something is going to help you, you may feel better, even if all you took was a sugar pill.
    • Note: this is all well and good if you don’t have a serious condition and just want to feel better. However, unscrupulous people selling unproven remedies for $$$ to desperate or unwary people is a completely different matter.
  • Some ancient wisdom/folk medicine is dangerous–like the idea shimmying down the stairs on your stomach could cure appendicitis. The more likely outcome of that would be extreme pain and potentially a ruptured appendix (which could kill you).

Most importantly, herbs and modern medicines may not mix well or may even be dangerous in combination. Pharmacists are trained to know which drugs have bad interactions with each other. When you take an herbal supplement, those data often don’t exist, and there’s no pharmacist to warn you if there’s a problem. For instance, when I had pneumonia last year, I thought I’d take Echinacea as well as the steroids and antibiotics I was on. As it turns out, taking Echinacea and steroids at the same time makes the steroids less effective.

If you’re going to take herbs, be careful, do your research on the herbs (avoid .com sites for info and stick to sites like the Mayo clinic or NCBI.NLM.NIH articles) and the brands, watch for adverse side effects,  and talk to your doctor if you are taking drugs for something else. That way, if something goes wrong, he or she can help you figure it out.

And in conclusion, remember to be skeptical of claims that an herb will revolutionize your life or cure any of 10 different diseases, because if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

 

 

Additional Information:

Mayo Clinic Guidelines: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/herbal-supplements/art-20046714

Example of a dangerous herbal supplement: https://scialert.net/fulltextmobile/?doi=pharmacologia.2017.25.31

 

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