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Herbal and Vitamin Supplements

Herbal and vitamin supplements are not heavily regulated the the government.

Herbal and Vitamin Supplements

Herbal and vitamin supplements are increasing in popularity as more people choose to take them instead of eating fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods. Whether this is a good idea from a health perspective is subject for debate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that when used wisely, these supplements offer some health benefits, such as lowering the risk of certain diseases and lessening or alleviating pain and discomfort caused by some drugs or medical conditions. The FDA also cautions, however, that in some situations herbal and vitamin supplements may be counterproductive and could create unforeseen risks for those who use them. Before taking daily supplements, individuals should weigh the pros and cons associated with them and learn how to choose the best ones for their needs.

Side Effects and Risks

As with drugs, herbal and vitamin supplements can pose health risks and produce side effects. According to the Mayo Clinic, the labels on these supplements are known for being unclear, confusing and not very helpful. Individuals contemplating using herbal or vitamin supplements should educate themselves about these products. The National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements features fact sheets on a wide selection of vitamin and mineral supplements. These include information about the importance of particular vitamins and their Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA). MedlinePlus also gives the various uses (backed by scientific evidence) for most herbal and vitamin supplements and their RDA, possible side effects and how they interact with prescription medications and other dietary and herbal supplements.

Choosing Supplements

Presently, the federal government does not heavily regulate the sale of herbal and vitamin supplements. In 2007, the FDA published regulations for improving the safety and reliability of dietary supplements, but it is unlikely that anything will change under the new guidelines. It is important to remember that supplements bearing a natural label are not always safe or good for the user. A supplement's degree of safety depends on its chemical composition and dosage, the method of preparation and the manner in which it works in and on the body.

When choosing herbal or vitamin supplements, it is important to:

  • Consult with a physician about potential health risks or drug interactions
  • Research the particular supplement by reading reports or papers prepared by notable health or medical experts or published by government agencies
  • Confirm that USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or NF (National Formulary) are on the label
  • Select herbal supplements that only use the plant's effective portion
  • Look for reputable and well-known manufacturers who list their contact information on the product label
  • Purchase average- or median-priced supplements (less-expensive items may be of inferior quality)

 

Supplements Are Not for Everyone

Herbal and vitamin supplements are not for everyone. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should only take dietary supplements with their physician's approval. While most supplements are safe for the mother, they may be dangerous to a fetus or a breast-feeding baby. According to the American Cancer Society, individuals receiving certain treatments for cancer should also avoid using supplements, which may cause skin sensitivity and severe reactions for patients undergoing radiation and may put those receiving chemotherapy at a greater risk for drug interactions.

Dietary supplements are not recommended for individuals under age 18 or over age 65. Elderly persons are likely to have different rates of metabolism and not many herbal and vitamin supplements have been tested or have a safe recommended dose for children.

In some cases, herbal and vitamin supplements may interact negatively with prescription and over-the-counter medications. As an example, warfarin (Coumadin), gingko biloba, aspirin and vitamin E are all blood thinners; taking them together raises the possibility of internal bleeding. Another supplement, St. Johns Wort, when taken in conjunction with some HIV medications, dramatically lowers their effectiveness. That same supplement has a similar effect on medicines prescribed for heart disease, depression, seizures, contraception and some cancers.

Supplements and Surgery

In addition to the above risks, certain dietary supplements may impact the success of surgery by:

  • Reducing the anesthesia's effectiveness
  • Altering heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increasing bleeding


Individuals scheduled for surgery should inform their physician if they are taking herbal or vitamin supplements. Usually surgical patients are asked to discontinue using the supplements several weeks prior to surgery to avoid potentially life-threatening interactions.

Who Should Take Supplements

Conversely, there are some individuals who should take herbal or vitamin supplements. They include those whose daily caloric intake is under 1,600, vegetarians, women who are postmenopausal, pregnant or trying to conceive or persons who have difficulty properly digesting and absorbing nutrients.

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