More MS news articles for June 1999

Safety of herbal drugs

by Marion Brooks

Lots of people take them and some even swear by them. But are herbal remedies safe? Often, there is no way to know.

Many doctors said most of the supplements are not tested enough to determine if they do what they claim or if they are safe. Metabolife claims to help a user lose weight naturally.

“This contains ma huang, and ma huang is not something you want to take,” said Dr. Nila Vora of Loyola’s Primary Care Center. Vora said ma huang is dangerous because it contains a form of ephedra, a potent Chinese compound that stimulates the heart and nervous system. “It can cause high blood pressure, dizziness, and can cause your heart to race. There have been deaths,” she said. A death that results from an herbal remedy does not mean it will be off the market.

“They are presumed safe unless proven unsafe by the FDA,” said Dr. Robert Kushner of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Unlike prescription drugs, which have to be tested to be on the market, herbals are on the market until the FDA proves they are unsafe. Not only are many herbal remedies not tested like prescription drugs, they are marketed as though they are.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Joyce Nettleton of the Institute of Food Technologies. Ted Vancil knows some claims are not true. He has had Multiple Sclerosis for 15 years and has experimented with all kinds of herbal remedies.

Now, Vancil found yerba mate, a South American tea used medicinally for centuries. He said it works and plans to keep on using it. He said he does not worry that it has not been tested like a prescription drug and he does not worry that in high doses it has been linked to cancer of the esophagus.

Yet, doctors worry about herbal supplements because of their potential interactions. “A lot of these supplements can interact with medications and cause more harm than good,” said Dr. Kushner. That warning is not found on the label of most supplements. “We know for example that high doses of garlic and ginko boloba can interact with blood thinners so anyone on a blood thinner can actually have a worsening bleeding situation,” said Kushner.

GNC stores are trying to help consumers sort through the confusion. They offer an in-store computer that explains what research, if any, has been done on various herbal remedies and dietary supplements. But, Dr. Kushner and others advise consumers to let your doctor know before useing any supplements.

New label requirements in effect since March provide more information about what is actually in herbal supplements. Labels will include a complete list of ingredients and information on nutrients.