Nutrition Articles

Guide to Herbal Supplements

Learn the Truth About these Top Sellers

An estimated 18 million adults use herbs in some form, and the sale of these products continues to increase.
Herbal supplements, which come from plants that have medicinal properties, claim to cure, treat, or prevent disease. But when an herbal supplement is billed as “natural” on the label, that doesn’t ensure its efficacy, purity, or safety. Although there are proven health benefits for some herbal products, potentially harmful effects exist for others. 
Claims about herbal products are often based on folklore or testimonial instead of scientific studies. It is important to read reliable information and search out unbiased sources of research, when available. Because herbal supplements are not standardized, the same herb can be found in different products in varying amounts. This can lead to toxic levels that may cause harmful reactions in the body. Do not assume that "natural" means safe.
To reduce health risks when choosing and using herbal supplements:
  • Always tell your doctor if you are taking herbs. Herbs can interact with other medications causing serious side effects.
  • Do not self-treat serious medical conditions with medicinal herbs.
  • Do not take herbal supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. There is no way to determine what level of herbs may harm a fetus or nursing infant.
  • Do not give herbal products to children under 3 years of age. Always check with your child’s pediatrician first.
  • Only purchase herbal supplements that display an expiration (or use-by) date, as well as a lot or batch number.
  • The herbal supplement should state which part of the plant was used to make the product, such as root, leaf, or blossom.
  • If a blend of ingredients is used in the herbal supplement, the label should list the individual ingredients as well as the amount of each.
  • Although not required, the supplement should indicate the type of solvent used when processing the herb.
Check for certification symbols, such as:
  • A United States Pharmacopeia (USP) symbol verifies that the product contains the stated ingredients in amounts and strength, is pure, meets limits for contaminants, and disintegrates quickly.   
  • NSF International verifies products for content and label accuracy, purity, contaminants, and manufacturing processes.
  • independently tests supplements for purity and active ingredients. A supplement company can pay to have its product evaluated, use the seal of approval, and be listed on the website.
Be a smart shopper! Use the following resources to research beyond the product information provided in stores:

Commonly Used Herbal Supplements
Black Cohosh is a member of the buttercup family. Some evidence indicates that as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy, it may help manage menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, irritability, and anxiety.   It is also used to relieve premenstrual cramping and pain, but more research is needed. However, no drug interactions have been reported. Women who are pregnant (it can stimulate uterine contractions), lactating, or at high risk for breast cancer (it may make breast cancer more likely to spread) should not use Black Cohosh. 
Research on chamomile tea supports claims that it reduces muscle spasms in the gastro-intestinal tract, indigestion, and menstrual cramps. Individuals who are allergic to ragweed or pollen may have an allergic reaction to chamomile. 
Drinking cranberry juice (about 10 ounces daily) may reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections. However, more research is needed to determine the efficacy of cranberry extract supplements. There is no evidence that cranberry juice or pills can treat an existing urinary tract infection, so consult your health care provider for treatment.
Echinacea is also known as the purple coneflower. Studies suggest Echinacea enhances the immune system and may reduce upper respiratory infections, but it should be taken intermittently (not permanently) and only when ill.   Individuals with autoimmune disorders should avoid Echinacea (it may offset the effects of drugs that suppress the immune system), and those with asthma or sensitivity to grass or pollen may experience allergic reaction. 

Feverfew is effective in treating migraine headaches, possibly by inhibiting inflammatory mediators. It is most effective when taken daily as a preventive measure. Choose tablets, which only contain a small amount of the active ingredients. Chewing the leaves can cause mouth sores as well as allergic reactions. Feverfew reacts adversely with anticoagulant and anti-platelet medications.
Garlic supplements (2-5 grams daily) have been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as fight infection and reduce platelet aggregation. Garlic may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some and increased bleeding. Therefore, avoid garlic seven days prior to surgery; if you take blood-thinning drugs, talk to your physician first. 
Studies support the use of ginger (250 mg, 2-4 times per day) to alleviate motion sickness. No toxic effects have been reported, but ginger may interact with anticoagulant drugs. Pregnant and nursing women should consult their physicians.
Ginkgo Biloba improves blood flow in areas of decreased circulation and may help with memory loss that is due to decreased blood flow. Several studies suggest that ginkgo may slow the progression of dementia, particularly in Alzheimer’s disease. However, not all studies report improvement—it does not improve memory and concentration in healthy individuals.   It may also be used for diabetic neuropathy and peripheral vascular diseases.   Since ginkgo acts as a blood thinner, taking it with other blood-thinning agents could increase one’s risk for excessive bleeding and even stroke.
Ginseng is the most frequently purchased herb in the United States. There are three different species of ginseng: American, Asian, and Siberian. Each has 20 or more active compounds in varying amounts. Marketing claims boast improved exercise performance, energy, and cognitive function, mood elevation, diabetes control, increased immunity, heart health, and cancer prevention. However, there is not much reliable research or evidence to support any of these claims. Ginseng may also decrease the efficacy of warfarin (coumadin) medication by reversing the drug’s effects.  
Kava Kava lacks controlled studies to back claims of inducing a deep, restful sleep and relieving insomnia and nervousness. More data is needed about safe usage (since it may cause liver toxicity) but it shouldn’t be used for more than three months. Kava Kava may affect motor reflexes (so use caution when driving or operating machinery), compound the effects of substances that depress the central nervous system, and bring on tremors, muscle spasm, and decrease the effectiveness of Parkinson’s medication.
St John’s Wart (SJW) may improve symptoms of mild to moderate depression, according to clinical trials conducted in Europe. But its effects on patients with major depression are contradictory and much more research is needed. There is no evidence that SJW elevates mood or improves emotional well-being in individuals without clinical depression. Combining herbal and prescription antidepressants could lead to adverse side effects. Consult your physician for usage.
Valerian may improve sleep quality without morning drowsiness, but more studies are needed to see if it reduces anxiety and stress. Valerian is not for extended use. It may add to the effects of sedatives, alcohol, and sleeping pills and cause dangerous interactions.

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Member Comments

  • This is helpful information. I also think that you have to be careful with herbal and other supplements.
    Stay away from these supplements, period.
  • Considering the fact that this article explainis a number of reasons why some of there herbals can be harmful. I am appalled that there is so little on St. John's wort when there is a large body of data that shows it to be very harmful in how it can affect the bodies ability to eliminate other medications from the body, leading to severe toxicities. Of all of the supplements St. John's wort is one of the ones that concerns me the most.
    I think herbal supplements can be great but, working in a pharmacy, I wish people would ask the pharmacist or staff about them. Some react very badly with prescription medications. Example? Garlic reacts with oral birth control in such a way as to render the birth control completely useless.
    These supplements should be outlawed, how much money do the rip off companies that sell them have to make from people believing all the nonsense?? In 2014, no adult should be believing the advertisements of these products, 70% of them don't even have the stuff in them that the bottle says on the label, for heaven's sakes. Praise be to BRAINS, people!

    I wanted to thank you for this wonderful program. After years of trying to conceive and a failed IVF and a failed FET, I ordered your Pregnancy Miracle Herb @ lifecentre@live.c
    om. According to my infertility doctor it was "very unlikely" that I could be pregnant with my own eggs. But here I am, pregnant for the first time in life. I got pregnant naturally just 2 months after my failed FET and after following your plan. I am now 7 month pregnant . I am spreading this miracle story to whomever I meet and who suffers from infertility. Kind regards and thank you, Priest Hallifat!"

    Martha Alexander turkey

  • Kava kava has been used safely throughout most of the Pacific for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It produces a mild relaxation in the body without affecting mental function. The amount of kava kava in a standard herbal capsule is ridiculously small--there is absolutely no way this can cause liver damage unless you are consuming a full bottle of herbs every single day for an extended period of time. Kava, kawa, awa, yanquona, whatever it is called on whatever island, it is completely safe unless taken to ridiculous excess. I would highly recommend kava kava over muscle relaxants, Valium, Xanax or any of the other chemicals manufactured by Big Pharma.
  • Feverfew pills gave me major mouth sores. I didn't realize that they are part of the mum family that I'm very allergic to. What a headache.
    St.John's Wort put me into Seritonin overload resulting in Seritonin Syndrome. Boy that was depressing.
    I take Melatonin for sleep, but not every night because it gives me the weirdest dreams if I do.
    If you have allergies or food sensitivities, my advice would be to take care and don't start a regular routine without professional monitoring. And definitely don't take a supplement if you don't know the brand or where it was made. This market is not controlled enough for quality and double blind testing. I don't think hearsay is enough. There are lots of good brands out there who stand behind what's in their product.
    Think about the bogus drugs shipped from China and other places. The herbal remedy market is big bucks too and is just a susceptible to people out to make a buck for nothingl
  • DOVE1010
    I'm all for herbs. All this hoopla over side affects and such is a lot of bull. You get the same, if not worse, with prescribed medicines.
    Since I have mood and anxiety problems, I am taking several supplements (Vitamin B complex, 5-HTP, GABA, Passion flower extracts, and a mixture of vitamins/minerals for women) - I feel good with this but feel the need to let you out there know that I was running into issues with my birth control while taking St. John's Wort: I can lower the effectiveness of it.
    I switched to 5-HTP to keep my mood more stable.
  • Sounds like BIG Pharma wrote this. I work for Healthy Directions and its sounds like propaganda.
  • 1954MARG
    St. Johns Wort interferes with a major metabolic pathway in the liver through which many medicines pass. It can therefore interfere with estrogen, reducing contraceptive and HRT effectiveness, also it can reduce the effectiveness of treatments for epilepsy and pain relief amongst others.
    It is best completely avoided if you are taking any prescribed medication or if you may be pregnant.
    If anyone believes they may be suffering from depression it is important that a proper diagnosis is obtained before starting any treatment.
  • Cranberry supplements DO work to keep UTIS away! Don't take a lot of other things, sure they are safe but have a good immune system and seldom get sick so I don't feel I need any of them...
  • MIKI....i would be very interested in some of the supplements you take specifically for breast cancer. I was diagnosed in 2010 (2 yrs this month) and mine was also encapsulated, took chemo and radiation, and had a nervous breakdown! I still struggle with my faith and nerves almost daily! I am currently trying to lose weight as cancer is linked to obesity (have lost 21 lbs) and have started taking supplements i feel may help support my diagnosis but i am only guessing. I am taking a vitamin and fish oil and vitamin D3 and calcium and flaxseed oil along with 2 prescription drugs for other ailments. I have also been drinking loose leaf tea. If you are willing to share I would love to hear what you have learned. If not...I understand....Tha
    nk you in advance.....Nadin
  • I got breast cancer the first time in 1987. It was encapsulated, so removed and went on with life. Six years later(supposedly "safe") I got breast cancer again on the other side. It was late stage 2 and growing fast since I found it within 2 weeks. My surgeon told me it was not the same cancer returning, just that I was "prone to cancer." I did chemo and radiation and after I finished, a year later, I met the woman who became my herb teacher and started taking classes and doing herbs. It has been nearly 20 years and I not only have not had cancer again, I don't get ill. Once in awhile I can tell my body is fighting something off so I feel icky, but after a day or so, I am good to go. For someone "prone to cancer", not too bad!!
    I will never give up my herbs!
    Oh yeah, I spoke to a guy who had had an inoperable brain tumor. His doctors told him to go home and put his affairs in order. His wife dragged him to my teacher, who put him on a strict regimen of herbs and diet. Five months later, the cancer had shrunk to the size of a thumbnail and the docs said they could operate. He said he'd stick to what was working.A month after that the tumor had also shrunk and a month after that everything was gone. Pretty great, huh?!

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.