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Medicinal Herbs: Take with a Grain of Salt

February 9, 2004

When it comes to herbal remedies, a spoonful of information may help the medicine go down or not.

Dr. Jenna Anding, Texas Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, provided some of that information during her presentation on "Health Aspects of Herbs: Fact or Fiction" at the recent Texas Family Forum, part of the 42nd annual Blackland Income Growth Conference at the Waco Convention Center.

Herbs, in one form or another, have been used as medicines throughout human history. Anding defined these medicinal herbs as "crude drugs of vegetable origin often used for the treatment of disease or to help maintain a (certain) level of health."

This use of herbal medications continues into the 21st century. In fact, "there are more than 8,000 books on herbal medicines," she said, and a recent Google search found more than 82,000 Web sites on some type of herbal medicine.

Consumers are taking notice too, Anding said. "An estimated 40 percent of Americans use herbs for health reasons. And nearly $5 billion are spent (annually) on herbal medicines."

That's a lot of money spent by a lot of people on "crude drugs of vegetable origin." Anding said some of the reasons for this phenomenon include the high cost of many prescription drugs, dissatisfaction with conventional medicine, the wish to be in control of personal health care and the belief that herbs are "natural" and so must be "safe."

However, she said, "Sixty percent (of the people who) use herbs for medicinal use don't tell their pharmacists or doctors."

And that can be hazardous to health, Anding said, because not all herbs are created equal. Some can interact with prescription drugs; some can interact with other herbal supplements.

Some can be poisonous.

"Sure, herbs are natural," she said. "So is lead. So is arsenic."

Anding said anyone taking herbs as medicines should remember: "Although herbs may have drug-like properties, prescription medicines and herbal supplements are not the same."

In order to get on the market, prescription drugs must be approved through a long and intricate process and determined to be safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration, she said.

Not so with herbal and other dietary supplements. The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act allowed dietary supplements including herbal supplements that had been on the market since before October 1994 to be considered safe for human use, Anding said.

But before any new ingredient can be put on the market, "the manufacturer must prove it is safe under normal use and conditions," she added.

"The FDA does not routinely check or test the contents of dietary supplements," Anding said. If a herbal supplement needs to be removed from the market, "the FDA has to prove the supplement is unsafe before it can be pulled off the shelves."

Her advice: "Do your research before using any herbal supplement."

The three most popular herbal remedies are ginkgo biloba, St. John's wort and Echinacea, Anding said. She offered some information about each:

Ginkgo biloba

This herb comes from the ginkgo tree, and is often advertised as a remedy for a variety of conditions, including vertigo and ringing in the ears.

But most of all, ginkgo biloba is purported to improve short-term memory.

"Does it work?" Anding said. "Depends on which study you read. Some early studies said yes. Other studies say it's not any better than a placebo."

Different studies might have gotten different results for many reasons, she said, including different extracts used in the studies or different amounts.

And don't forget the side effects. Any medication, whether herbal, over-the-counter or prescription, can cause some unexpected side effects which are not required to be listed on the supplement's label.

Some of the side effects of ginkgo biloba include headache, dizziness, palpitations and sometimes diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

"Ginkgo biloba can also act as a blood thinner," Anding said. "It can increase clotting time." And it can interact with some medications.

St. John's wort

This herbal remedy is often used as a way to "promote a feeling of well-being," as the label sometimes puts it. This delicate way of saying "treating depression" has to do with legal issues, Anding said.

"By law, dietary supplements cannot be advertised as a treatment for diseases," she explained. Doing so would make them legally classified as drugs, which would put them under the auspices of the FDA.

"Does it work?" Anding asked. "This herb has been heavily researched. Some studies say it's better than a fake pill," but not all studies agree on that finding. Two recent studies have found it's not helpful in treating major depression.

And of course, side effects are possible. They include insomnia, dry mouth, dizziness, sensitivity to the sun for fair-skinned people and interaction with several prescription medications, including antidepressants and birth control pills.


A member of the daisy family, Echinacea is used most often to treat colds and upper respiratory conditions, Anding said. Evidently people in this country get a lot of colds because figures show Americans spent $33 million on Echinacea supplements in 1998.

"Does Echinacea work?" she asked. "It may reduce the length of a cold or the severity of symptoms, but there is no evidence that it will prevent colds or flu."

And like other herbs, it also has side effects. Perhaps the most serious one is its effect on the autoimmune system.

Echinacea "should not be used if you have an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis," Anding said. "Like other herbs, Echinacea can also affect prescription medications and can sometimes cause allergic reactions.

"And, if it's used for more than eight weeks, there is concern that Echinacea could actually weaken the immune system," she said. "Don't take it every day."

So what's a consumer to do? Nearly 15 million of them take herbs in the hopes of improving their health, Anding said.

And although "Texas Cooperative Extension does not endorse the use of herbal medicine," she did offer some tips to those who wish to use herbs, but wisely:

Anyone who has a problem with a dietary supplement can call the FDA at (800) FDA-1088. For complaints about advertising claims concerning dietary supplements, call the Federal Trade Commission at (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357).

Copyright © 2004, Texas A&M University