The Dangers of Herbal Supplements

People hate taking what they perceive as ‘drugs’. They hate taking anything synthetic and when the doctor tells them they are getting an injection of steroids, or of chemotherapy drugs, or of a vaccination, or of antibiotics then they often will react badly. It doesn’t seem natural to put things in our veins or our stomach that have been concocted in a lab, and it requires an awful lot of trust to believe that the drugs we are consuming are doing us good.

Thus many of us will turn to herbal supplements and herbal medicines instead and see these as a ‘safer’ and more ‘natural’ solution. They exist in the wild, we could have eaten them when we were still evolving, and in many cases they have no harmful side effects. Many advocates of herbal supplements believe that doctors are just trying to get their money (in the US at least where the health system is private) and that these natural alternatives provide a more honest way to treat conditions. What they forget is that those herbal companies are businesses too – they’re also trying to get money, and if doctors really only cared about their profits then surely they would use herbal remedies too and increase their market? The question that you should be asking is why doctors are so adverse to them – and why if they’re so effective everyone isn’t using them? It’s also worth bearing in mind that in counties like England, where doctors are employed by the NHS and don’t get paid for prescribing drugs, they still advise all the same medications and these never include herbal remedies.

The answer? Well there’s a lot wrong with a large number of herbal supplements. Here we will look at what those problems are and what dangers exist with regards to herbal remedies and medicines.

They Don’t Work

Firstly, in the vast majority of cases herbal supplements just don’t work. Some do of course – guarana is a herbal supplement and it is perfectly effective as a way to boost your metabolism. However a shocking 2/3rds of all herbal supplements have never been clinically proven to work and that usually means quite simply that they don’t work. In unbiased blind tests, never have the vast majority of these herbal medications been shown to have any measurable effect on health.

That’s fine if you want a placebo to help you feel better or more alert (though it’s very expensive seeing as a sugar pill could achieve the same effect). However if it means that you are foregoing the use of other proven medication then this becomes a dangerous attitude – as you won’t be treating a condition that could easily worsen.

Let’s take a particular school of herbal remedies as an example: homeopathy. Homeopathy is a very popular form of herbal medicine that involves consuming things in tiny qualities that have been diluted thousands of times over.

The original premise of homeopathy is that a medicine should mimic the symptoms of an illness as this will cause the body to fight against those symptoms more and thus cure the illness. Of course this was based on no science and in fact based on just one observation of a particular remedy for malaria. Obviously giving people medicine that would make them more ill wouldn’t be popular and would probably kill a lot of people, and so homeopaths started diluting the substances and claiming that you would just be drinking the ‘life force’ of the ingredient. The amount of dilution however is often so large as to be scientifically impossible – in the vast majority of cases there is not a single particle of the original substance left in the concoction.

So what the individual drinks is water with a bit of sugar and often some alcohol (no doubt to give the illusion of an effect). It seems like a convenient way to make money from water with no overheads, and of course there is no scientific way whatsoever that this could work as a treatment for anything. Despite that homeopaths will advise people not to take antibiotics, not to use chemotherapy, and instead to use their water and sugar – which is highly dangerous. They also claim that their remedies work for fighting headaches, colds, swelling and depression – less dangerous but still a serious waste of money.

They Cause Side Effects

And despite claims that herbal medications don’t cause side effects this is in fact incorrect – and in many cases they can cause side effects that are just as severe. Just because something comes from the ground this certainly doesn’t mean it’s safe – many recreational drugs come from the ground as do a range of poisons.

For instance the DFA not that long ago released a warning that kava root, one of the top ten selling herbal supplements, potentially caused liver damage. Meanwhile ephedra, a Chinese weight loss herb, was banned after being linked to over 100 deaths. Others cause vomiting, nausea and further problems. Because these drugs are rarely tested in the same way as pharmaceutical drugs, and because those responsible for packaging and selling them often lack a proper scientific understanding, there are many more herbal supplements out there for which the side effects are unknown.

They Cause Interactions

Further, even if the herbal supplements do not cause side effects per se in themselves, they may still have negative interactions with other drugs. For instance taking Saint-John’s wort can prevent HIV medications from working, as well as some heart drugs. This is unfortunate as Saint-John’s wort is one of the 1/3rd of herbal medications shown to actually have a measurable effect.

They Aren’t Regulated

Finally, when you take herbal supplements and remedies you will be taking substances that haven’t gone through the same rigorous testing and regulation as pharmaceutical drugs. Likewise the precise ingredients and methodology will vary from one brand to the next, so you may find that you end up consuming a ‘bad batch’ which doesn’t work or that has more severe side effects.

What to Do

Despite all this, some herbal remedies do work, and others have been shown to have a range of positive effects on our health. Some herbs are ‘superfoods’ that contain a range of powerful nutrients and others can help to treat a range of diseases.

When using herbal supplements then it is your responsibility to research what you are taking fully. Read in detail how they work and what the mechanism of action is, and then use your common sense to decide for yourself whether the substance is likely to have any merit. Read up on any negative side effects, and on any potential interactions with other drugs. Likewise you should read up on reviews to see what other people make of the substance.

Finally you should consult with your doctor if you are unsure before you begin a new course of medication. They have a lot more experience and knowledge about human biology, and they will be able to tell you whether the medication is likely to work or have negative consequences.

2 comments

  1. Michael Reply
    April 16, 2013 at 11:16 am

    I detect strong bias in the author's article. I will do my best to not do the same with my comment.

    The author justified pharmaceutical companies' drug prices on the grounds that businesses that market herbs also have to make a profit. Just look at the profits and prices on patented pharmaceutical drugs vs when the patents expire. Pharmaceutical companies take the cake with both patents and health insurance for the very fact that they do want your money, and some doctors do indeed want your money because of kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies. I recommend searching "doctor kickbacks" and "Pharma drug lobby".

    Furthermore, the cost of FDA approval is exorbitant, and that's another reason why pharmaceuticals are so expensive. Because of the competition of business in the realm of natural supplements, and difficulty of patenting something that is not man made, few, if any businesses can afford to go through the process of FDA approval.

    Thirdly, pharmaceuticals may cost parent companies BILLIONS of dollars in lawsuits from adverse drug reactions and deaths. In spite of FDA approval, these very pharmaceuticals are a leading cause of death in this country, responsible for over 2 million serious adverse drug reactions and over 100,000 deaths per year!

    I agree with the author in some part about natural supplements not working, having side-effects and interactions. There are scams, and not everyone responds the same to each supplement. But the reality of it is that not everyone responds the same to pharmaceutical medication, and pharmaceutical companies have scammed the general populous into believing a multitude of lies about the safety and efficiency of at least some of their drugs (Search for Prozac Violence, Paxil lawsuit, Zoloft lawsuit, olanzapine lawsuit, Avandia lawsuit, Wellbutrin birth defects, J&J 1.1 billion, [Your Medication] lawsuit (just to be safe)).

    Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal supplements are relatively safe when administered properly and the contraindications (if any) are accounted for. But, and I agree with the author somewhat on the dangers, don't downplay the risks of some of the herbal supplements and the more exotic concoctions. Research studies done on these supplements, reviews on reseller websites, articles written about them, and a physician and/or a psychiatrist. There's a lot you can learn about the efficacy and risks of the supplements you are interested in by researching all of these source types. The information on herbal and other supplements is not as poor as the author implies. If you want to know which supplements are potentially dangerous, you'll need to stick to the more well-researched ones and ones that have been on the market ones. Only then will you have an indication as to their side effects and efficacy. For the more exotic ones that are not well-studied, you will want to check with your doctor and research the contraindications of any medicine you are currently taking, and ask your doctor about replacing your medication with a supplement (some medication has serious, even deadly, withdrawal effects). There's always a chance that your particular chemistry or medication will adversely react with any food, supplement, or medication you take. Mixing herbs together and supplements together may cause interactions as well. You may be better off trying a few "snake oils" than some of the deadly drugs from Pharmaceuticals, but you're no better off if you don't do your research and end up taking something that adversely reacts.

    I agree with the author's directions and advice for what to do, but I would like to add something. When researching scholarly journals about pharmaceuticals, take care to see which firm or organization sponsored the study. There is an inherent conflict of interest that arises from pharmaceutical companies sponsoring their own research about their own drugs.

    I am not a licensed professional and cannot give professional advice; I am simply curious. I have cautiously used my curiosity and to do research, and I encourage anyone who wants to experiment with alternatives to do the same. Do your research and consult a doctor. If the doctor tries to prescribe pharmaceuticals, ask about the efficacy and side effects (not every pharmaceutical is necessarily dangerous), and bring scholarly documentation. If the doctor wants to reject an herbal supplement, ask why and bring scholarly documentation if possible.

  2. Chris Reply
    July 9, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    "However a shocking 2/3rds of all herbal supplements have never been clinically proven to work and that usually means quite simply that they don't work." – Not necessarily so. Just because an herbal supplement hasn't gone through NIH testing yet, doesn't mean they don't work. It seems to me that the author of this paper is a bit biased when it comes to herbals. Maybe has ties to a Pharmaceutical company?

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