The Risks of Herbal Remedies

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Many people use herbal products to treat ailments, or as general health supplements. In most cases, herbal remedies have little effect (if any), and in some cases they can pose serious health risks.

Here’s what you need to know before taking herbal remedies!

Are They Effective?

Surprisingly, many traditional herbal remedies have been tested by scientists! In cases where the herbal products show beneficial effects, the active ingredient can be isolated and made available is a pure form, allowing you to control the dosage, and not take any other chemicals that may be in the natural form.

Here are just a few of the modern drugs that were originally derived from plants or other natural sources:

AspirinWillow bark
PenicillinBread mold
QuinineCinchona calisaya bark
MorphineCrotalaria sessiliflora
DigitoxinDigitalis purpurea (purple foxglove)
EphedrineEphedra sinica
Paclitaxil (Taxol)Pacific Yew

One way to learn more about the effectiveness of a natural remedy is to do a simple web search for clinical studies.

For example, you might search for: echinacea clinical studies

The Risks

Clinical studies will also tell you about risk factors, which can be significant. Some people believe that natural products are always safe, but this clearly isn’t true. For example, the oleander can cause vomiting, diarrhea, erratic pulse, seizures, coma, and death. Contact with the leaves and sap can cause rashes and skin irritation.

Even if a plant product is generally safe, it can be dangerous for people with certain medical problems (such as heart conditions). Herbal products can also interact with prescriptions drugs that you may already be taking.

That’s why you should always talk to your doctor before using herbal products!

Can You Trust the Manufacturer?

Unless you are going to grow your own plants, you are trusting the manufacturer. And sadly, in many cases you shouldn’t. Herbal supplements are very poorly regulated, and there is a long history of deceptive and dangerous practices by suppliers.

Studies have shown that 40-50% of herbal supplements do not even contain the supposed main ingredient, and many contain substances that are not listed which may have dangerous side effects [1].

You may think you are safe if you buy brand-name supplements from a major store – but you would be wrong. In 2015, the New York State Attorney General’s office conducted a study of herbal supplements [2]. They found that four out of five did not contain the ingredients listed on the label! And that includes products sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.

Many herbals products also contain “fillers” and other ingredients that are not listed on the label, but can cause health risks. For example, wheat germ – which can cause serious problems for people with celiac disease – is a common filler.

An FDA study in 2015 found over 300 herbal products that contain hidden, deceptively labeled, or dangerous ingredients [3]. Another study of FDA data, conducted in 2018, found almost 800 herbal supplements that contained unlisted ingredients [4].

Many herbal products are grown in third-world countries with little or no quality control, and then packaged under various brand names for distribution in the US. They may be contaminated with pesticide residue, heavy metals, or other toxins.

The problem is so severe that fourteen US states and territories have petitioned Congress to regulate herbal products – so far to no avail [5].

Should You Use Herbal Products?

Whether or not to use herbal remedies is a personal decision… but you should certainly be aware of the risks, and talk to your doctor!

And if you believe you are entitled to safe access to natural remedies, lobby your elected representatives for stronger regulation and oversight.

Further Reading

  1. DNA Barcoding Detects Contamination and Substitution in North American Herbal Products, BMC Medicine.
  2. What’s In Your Herbal Supplements? DNA Barcoding Identifies “Houseplants And Wheat”, Popular Science.
  3. Beware of Fraudulent Dietary Supplements, US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
  4. Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated With US Food and Drug Administration Warnings, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open.
  5. State Attorneys General Petition to Regulate Herbal Products.

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About Author

Lightning Science founder Robert Nicholson is a serial Internet entrepreneur with a passion for using science to improve life on earth.

He is also the founder of the ED Treatment Information Center, and an instructor in Computer Engineering at San Jose State University.

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