Why should I worry about mixing herbs and drugs?
Here's one reason. A few months ago, researchers made an important discovery. They tested the blood of people who were taking both drugs to treat AIDS and the herb St. John's wort
. Many AIDS patients were taking St. John's wort not only for depression
, but also because an earlier study had suggested that St. John's wort may help fight the AIDS virus.
But researchers found that when AIDS patients took St. John's wort, the level of AIDS-fighting drugs in their blood dropped dramatically. This means that the St. John's wort was preventing the AIDS drugs from doing their job. And this is a dangerous result when you're dealing with a condition as serious as AIDS.
You may think that all this has nothing to do with you. But as a result of this study, the FDA issued a warning saying that St. John's wort may prevent other drugs from doing their job. And what were among the drugs they listed? Birth control pills. back to top
But many people take herbs and drugs at the same time!
That's absolutely true. At least 4 out of 10 people in the United States use nutritional supplements, including herbs. Many of those people also take prescription drugs. And as more people experiment with herbs, researchers are learning more about how these herbs work alone, with other herbs, and with drugs. Some of what researchers are learning is positive and hopeful. And some of it is pretty scary. When it comes to the unknown risks of mixing herbs and drugs, many scientists believe that the study on St. John's wort and AIDS drugs is just the tip of the iceberg. back to top
Aren't herbs always safer than drugs?
Many people believe that because herbs are "natural," they are safe, and because drugs are "artificial," they're bound to have more risks or side effects. When looked at overall, herbs do tend to be safer and gentler, and cause fewer side effects than drugs.
But there are many exceptions to this rule. The herb ephedra
, for example, found in herbal weight-loss formulas, has been linked to heart attacks. The herb chaparral
, once used to treat acne
, colds, and diarrhea, has been linked to liver damage. Compared to these and other toxic herbs, many drugs are far less dangerous. In short: even when you take them alone, both herbs and drugs can have serious side effects. And when you mix them together, the risk of those side effects multiplies. back to top
What can I do to avoid taking dangerous combinations?
Just being aware that herbs and drugs may not work well together is an important step. Here are some other tips:
- Learn about what you're taking. Before you take a drug or an herb, find out as much as possible beforehand. In the case of prescription drugs, you can ask your health professional or pharmacist what your medication does and what side effects to watch out for. In the case of herbs, getting good information may not be so easy. One place to start is right here at iEmily: all the herbs listed on this site include cautions about side effects or possible drug interactions.
- Tell your health professional what supplements you're taking. Don't be afraid to say that you take herbs. It may be embarrassing to talk about, but if you don't, you're only hurting yourself. Health professionals know that many of their patients take herbs and supplements. Many are making it a point to learn more about these substances so that they can offer good advice.
The next time you see a health professional, whether for a routine exam or an emergency visit, tell him or her what herbs, vitamins, or other supplements you're taking so it can be noted on your chart. If you have a health condition, your health professional may know whether it's a good idea to take a particular supplement. In addition, he or she can check your chart before prescribing any drugs, reducing the chance that you will end up with a dangerous herb–drug combination.
Meanwhile, here's some good news: many pharmacies are starting computer databases that can look up interactions between prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including herbs. Tell your pharmacist what other drugs or herbs you take when you fill a prescription. The pharmacist may be able to tell you about possible harmful interactions.
- Stop taking any supplements at least a week before you have surgery, and wait at least a week after surgery to start taking them again. Some herbs and vitamins can increase the chance of bleeding during surgery or interact badly with drugs used for anesthesia. If you know you're going to have surgery, it's very important that you tell your health professional you've been taking supplements, even if they're just vitamin pills. back to top