“Should I consider usingherbal supplements?If so, whichones are best?”
We’re a nation of pill-poppers. The nutritional supple-ment industry estimates thatAmericans spend more than$6 billion every year on vitamin-and mineral-packed pills, pow-ders, and tablets.It’s a testament to the allureof the quick-fix, given that littleevidence exists to support mostof the exaggerated health claimsmade for nutritional supplements.Now, many people are expand-ing their supplement habits toinclude herbs.Herbs are plants used in smallquantities for a variety of effects.Culinary herbs, for example, areplants used in small quantities forthe flavor or aroma their leavesadd to foods. Examples includemint, rosemary, thyme, andcilantro.Medicinal herbs, on the otherhand, are used for the healthbenefits some people believe theplants offer. Examples includeblack cohosh, echinacea, gingko,valerian, hoodia, feverfew, anddozens more.Some herbs even pull double-duty. Ginger, for instance, tastesgood in soups, sauces, and entrées.It also has the power to relievenausea and vomiting during preg-nancy—safely—according to theNational Center for Complemen-tary and Alternative Medicine, orNCCAM, a unit of the NationalInstitutes of Health.A list of common herbs, theiruses, and potential side effects is
available online at <nccam.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm>.By themselves, herbs are wholefoods—a sprig or a few leaves of this or that. Taken as supplementsthat are concentrated and pack-aged in pill, capsule, or powderform, though, their active ingredi-ents have more potential to havean effect.Just as people take vitaminand mineral supplements becausethey think the pills provide pro-tection against cancer or heartdisease or that they boost thebody’s immune system, herbalsupplements are often toutedas having a wide range of healthbenefits as well.In most cases, it’s too earlyto tell if the claims are true.While the federal governmentis sponsoring research, the scienceis largely still evolving.If you have an interest inherbal supplements, take precau-tions to use them safely. Federalguidelines regulating the market-ing and sale of supplements aremuch less stringent than thestandards applied to over-the-counter and prescription drugs.Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about any herbalsupplements you are taking. It’simportant for many reasons:
Herbal supplements have thepotential to interact with othermedications. They may inhibitor enhance the effects of cer-tain drugs.
Herbal supplements can affectyour risk of bleeding during
SUZANNEHAVALA HOBBSDrPH, MS, RD
This issue’s Nutrition Hotline addresses what herbal supplementsare and whether they provide the healthbenefits that their labels claim they do.