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Herb Safety 101: What to Watch Out For

Herb Safety 101:
What to Watch Out For

*DISCLAIMER* All information is provided for educational purposes only. No drugs or supplements should be taken without prior advice from your health professional.

Why do I need to worry about herbs?
When should I take herbs?
"Natural" doesn't always mean "safe."
What herbs should I watch out for?

Why do I need to worry about herbs?
There are many herbs on the market today. You can buy them in the drugstore, at the grocery store, or in a health-food store. Manufacturers of these herbs claim they improve your immune system or help you lose weight, while others say they increase your energy level and relieve muscle pain. But are they safe? When it comes to herbs, it is important to remember that they are a natural form of medicine and should be treated just as seriously as the medications your health care provider prescribes. back to top

When should I take herbs?
Herbs can be high in vitamins and minerals that nourish the body and give you energy. Many people use herbs to treat a health condition that is not serious or life-threatening, such as a cold, tiredness, or anxiety. However, if you already receive treatment for a health condition such as asthma or diabetes, or if you take any other medication, always talk with your health care provider before taking herbs. Everyone reacts differently, but taking some herbs may make a health condition worse. back to top

"Natural" doesn't always mean "safe."
Most herbal medicines are safe to take in small amounts. But don't think that "natural" always means "safe." When an herb is considered to be "safe" by health care practitioners, it means that the herb is safe when taken correctly. If you use herbs, follow the directions on the package. Like any other medication, taking too much can be dangerous to your health. back to top

What herbs should I watch out for?
Unless you have advice from an expert (a naturopathic physician, an Ayurvedic practitioner, an herbalist, or a Chinese Medicine practitioner, for example), avoid taking herbal formulas that contain a wide range of ingredients because some herbs do not work well together. Never buy imported Chinese herbs or Ayurvedic herbs over the counter: they may be contaminated with prescription drugs, toxic metals such as lead and mercury, and other dangerous nonherbal ingredients. You should treat some herbs with extra caution, or even avoid them altogether. Below are some herbs to watch out for:
  • Chaparral. This herb is often used to treat acne, colds, flu, diarrhea, and cancer. However, chaparral has caused at least six cases of liver problems in people, and one person required a liver transplant. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which approves foods and drugs to be sold in stores, put chaparral on its list of potentially toxic products. Many experts say chaparral is too toxic for people to use. Even though it is not widely available in health-food stores now, chaparral may be found as an ingredient in combination herbal formulas (another reason to avoid combination herbal formulas!). Before taking any herbal formula, read the label. If it contains chaparral, your safest bet is to avoid it.
  • Comfrey. This herb is used to treat skin rashes, burns, and minor cuts. However, if taken in large amounts over a long period of time, comfrey may cause serious liver damage. In the past 10 years, it has been linked to at least seven cases of serious liver problems. One person died from taking large amounts. In addition to liver damage, studies show that lung, kidney, and gastrointestinal problems are also possible.
  • Ephedra. This herb is found in many diet pills and supplements. Manufacturers of these products claim that ephedra raises your energy level and curbs your appetite. However, no reliable evidence shows that ephedra is safe or that it helps you lose weight. The FDA has reported more than 300 cases of bad reactions to ephedra, and dozens of deaths have been linked to the pills that contain it. In 1996, the FDA issued a warning about ephedra, saying that it is a powerful stimulant that may affect the heart and the nervous system. Both young, healthy people and older people with chronic illnesses have reported symptoms including nervousness, dizziness, headaches, heart palpitations, chest pain, seizures, heart attacks, and mental illness.
  • Ginseng. This herb is often used to increase energy. However, it may cause nervousness and difficulty sleeping. If you drink caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or soda, while taking ginseng, you could have gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers and heartburn. Taken for a long period of time, ginseng may also cause heavy menstrual bleeding and breast tenderness in women. Another fact to know about ginseng: many so-called ginseng products actually contain very little of the herb.
Be sure to tell your doctor or health professional if you are taking any herbs or supplements. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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