Dietary supplements are plants and minerals that have the reputation of providing benefits to human health. People have used these herbal supplements for centuries to relieve pain, aid digestion, improve memory and provide additional minerals needed in a person’s diet. Even though the best herbal supplements can be beneficial, they require some investigation and caution by the user.

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The Good

Dietary and herbal supplements are generally inexpensive, easy to find and sold over the counter in many places. Their long use has provided health benefits and medicines to many people. Their use is in the form of tea, capsules, tinctures or tablets. Many medicines approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) also use plant and herbal components as a basis for their formulas. Dietary and herbal supplements can be beneficial and consumed by many people without harm. Some, such as fish oil and flaxseed oil  tablets which are high in Omega - 3, and  are prescribed by physicians for various purposes.

The Bad

The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act loosened the restrictions on supplement manufacturers. Now, supplement regulations fall under the Federal Trade Commission rather than the FDA. It allows herbal supplement manufacturers to be responsible to certify the products safety, recommend dosage levels and be responsible that the product performs as advertised. Manufacturers can do this without independent verification. The statements on herbal products can’t be specific. If a general statement on the label states the supplement improves health it will not be examined by the FDA. If it states that it prevents heart attacks it falls under FDA regulation. If it becomes apparent that an herbal supplement is dangerous, the FDA has the authority to ban the supplement.

 Ginko Biloba, Saint John’s Wort, Echinacea and other popular herbal supplements have been found to be relatively useless to help the conditions they are advertised to help. The American Medical Association Journal published a study of Ginkgo Biloba in 2009 that found that it had no qualities to improve memory or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  While this may cause people to waste money on something that is ineffective, it is worse if the supplement does harm. Store clerks may recommend these products with no medical training other than what they read in an advertisement, or on the back of the bottle.

The Ugly                   

Many people consider herbals natural, and automatically safe, and companies use the natural concept in advertisements. It isn’t always true that a natural supplement is safe. It’s not uncommon for a television news crew to have a selection of dietary supplements chemically analyzed, and find the ingredients aren’t what the label indicates. They may have too little or none of the active ingredient or much more than stated on the label. The tests have found these products may also contain harmful contaminants such as heavy metals or poisons.

 If someone is going to take herbal supplements, they should check with their physician to see if a supplement will interact negatively with any medication they are taking. This is especially true for a pregnant woman. The supplement could adversely affect the unborn child. A common hazard occurs when supplements that have anticoagulant properties interact with prescription blood thinners. This is dangerous for someone already taking a prescription blood thinner. If one is going to have surgery, they should let their doctor know what herbal supplements they are taking. An herbal supplement that thins blood could be very dangerous if taken with other anticoagulants.

 It’s best if a person treats herbal supplements like any medicine. Find out about the side effects, then discuss with a physician about reactions with other medication.  Herbal supplements can be beneficial, but can also cause harm.