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Herbal Medicine

What are herbal supplements?

Products made from plants, which are used to treat diseases or to maintain health are called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines. A product made from plant sources and used only for internal use is called an herbal supplement.

Many prescription medicines and over-the-counter medicines are also made from plant products. But these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.

Herbal supplements come in all forms. They may be dried, chopped, powdered, or in capsule or liquid form. They can be used in many ways, including:

  • Swallowed as pills, powders, or concentrated liquid extracts (tinctures)

  • Brewed as tea

  • Used on the skin as gels, lotions, or creams

  • Added to bath water

The practice of using herbal supplements dates back thousands of years. Today herbal supplement use is common in the U.S. But they are not for everyone. They are not subject to close scrutiny by the FDA or other governing agencies. For this reason, herbal supplements are still controversial. Talk with your healthcare provider about any symptoms or conditions you have. Discuss the use of herbal supplements.

The FDA and herbal supplements

The FDA considers herbal supplements as foods, not medicines. So they are not subject to the same testing, manufacturing, and labeling standards and regulations as medicines.

You can now see labels that explain how herbs can influence different actions in the body. But herbal supplement labels can't say that herbs treat specific health conditions. This is because herbal supplements are not subject to clinical trials or to the same manufacturing standards as prescription or traditional over-the-counter medicines. There is no research that proves a certain herb cures or treats a health problem or prevents a certain condition.

For example, St. John's wort is a popular herbal supplement. It's thought to be useful for treating depression in some cases. A product label on St. John's wort might say that it "enhances mood." But it can't claim to treat a specific condition, such as depression.

Herbal supplements, unlike medicines, are not required to be standardized to ensure batch-to-batch consistency. Some manufacturers may use the word standardized on a supplement label. But it may not mean the same thing from one manufacturer to the next.

Precautions when choosing herbal supplements

Herbal supplements can interact with conventional medicines. Some may have strong effects. Don't self-diagnose or self-prescribe. Talk with your healthcare provider before taking herbal supplements.

  • Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the herbs you are taking. Talk with your provider and contact herbal supplement manufacturers for information.

  • Follow label instructions carefully. If you use herbal supplements, use the prescribed dosage only. Never take more than the advised dosage. Look for information about who should not take the supplement. Find out if there are any health conditions or other factors why the supplement should not be used.

  • Work with a professional. Seek out the services of a trained and licensed herbalist or licensed naturopathic physician (ND) who has extensive training in this area.

  • Watch for side effects. If symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, headache, or upset stomach occur, reduce the dosage or stop taking the supplement. Get medical care if symptoms don't decrease, or they get worse.

  • Watch for allergic reactions. A severe allergic reaction can cause trouble breathing. If such a problem occurs, call 911 or the emergency number in your area for help.

  • Research the company whose herbs you are taking. Herbal supplements are not all made the same way. Choose a reputable manufacturer's brand. Ask yourself:

    • Is the manufacturer researching its own herbal products or just relying on the research efforts of others?

    • Does the product make outlandish or hard-to-prove claims?

    • Does the product label give information about the standardized formula, side effects, ingredients, directions, and precautions?

    • Is the label information clear and easy to read?

    • Is there a toll-free telephone number, an address, or a website address listed so consumers can find out more information about the product?

What are some of the most common herbal supplements?

This list of common herbal supplements is for informational purposes only. Talk with your healthcare provider to discuss your own health conditions or symptoms. Don't self-diagnose. Talk with your provider before taking any herbal supplements.

Black cohosh

This shrub-like plant of eastern North America gets its name from the Native American word for rough (referring to its root structure). It is generally used for menopausal conditions, painful menstruation, uterine spasms, and vaginitis.

Echinacea

This is often used to strengthen the body's immune system. It is also considered a prevention against colds and flu. This U.S. native plant is also called the purple coneflower.

Evening primrose

Oil from this night-blooming, bright yellow flowering plant may be helpful in reducing symptoms of arthritis and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Feverfew

The pain-relieving properties of feverfew have been used for migraine headaches and menstrual cramps.

Garlic

Garlic is generally used for cardiovascular conditions. This includes high cholesterol and triglyceride levels linked to the risk of atherosclerosis.

Gingko biloba

This herb is used for many conditions linked to aging. This includes poor circulation and memory loss.

Ginseng

This is used as a general tonic to increase overall body tone. It is believed helpful in raising energy levels and improving resistance to stress.

Goldenseal

This herb, native to the U.S., is popular for its healing properties and germ-stopping qualities. Often used for colds and flu, it is also popular for soothing the nose lining when it's inflamed or sore.

Green tea

This herb is used to combat extreme tiredness (fatigue), prevent arteriosclerosis and certain cancers, lower cholesterol, and help with weight loss.

Hawthorn

This is used for several heart-related conditions. It is supportive in treating angina, atherosclerosis, heart failure, and high blood pressure.

Saw palmetto

This may be used for enlarged prostate, a common condition in men over age 50.

St. John's wort

Wild-growing with yellow flowers, this herb has been used for centuries to treat mental disorders. Today it's a popular recommendation for mild to moderate depression.

It's important to remember that herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA. They have not been tested in an FDA-approved clinical trial to prove their effectiveness in treating or managing health conditions. Talk with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Talk with your provider before taking any herbal supplements.

Tell all of your healthcare providers (conventional or complementary) about the health approaches, supplements, and medicines you use. This will give them a full picture of your health. It will help ensure safe, effective, and coordinated care.

Online Medical Reviewer: Bianca Garilli MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2019
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