Herbal health products and supplements have become a billion-dollar industry. An herb, or botanical, is a plant or part of a plant that people use to try to stay healthy, or to treat health conditions and illnesses. An herbal health product or supplement (also called a botanical product) is a type of dietary supplement that contains one or more herbs.
These supplements can have strong effects on the body. However, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are available in many forms, including in tea bags, capsules, tablets, liquids, and powders. Examples of common herbal health products and supplements include black cohosh, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, saw palmetto, and St. John’s wort.
Path to improved health
Herbal products and supplements are intended to maintain health or treat health problems. However, as mentioned above, they are not regulated by the FDA. This is because the FDA considers herbal supplements to be food, not drugs. An herbal supplement’s label can say how it might help, but it cannot claim to be a treatment for a disease or illness. According to the FDA, “Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or alleviate the effects of diseases.”
The National Institutes of Health provides a good guide that shows how specific herbs and supplements may be used. For example, people often take the following herbs in the following ways:
- American ginseng is taken to reduce stress, boost the immune system, improve digestion, and more.
- Chamomile is taken to improve sleep quality, reduce anxiety, and help gastrointestinal conditions.
- Cinnamon is taken to treat gastrointestinal problems, loss of appetite, and diabetes.
There are many herbal products and supplements that promise to treat a range of symptoms. However, talk to your family doctor before you begin taking anything new. Never take more than the recommended dose on the label, and always check with your doctor to make sure the supplement won’t interfere with any medication you already take.
Things to consider
Are herbal health products and supplements safe?
Herbs aren’t necessarily safer than the ingredients in over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines just because they come from nature. In fact, several prescription medicines are chemicals that were found in nature and purified. Although herbal health products and supplements are advertised as “natural,” their ingredients aren’t necessarily natural to the human body. They may have strong effects on your body. They can also cause unpleasant health effects (also called adverse effects). Researchers have studied the benefits and risks of some herbal health products and supplements. Others need to be studied more.
Are herbal health products and supplements regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
The FDA doesn’t require proof of their safety and effectiveness to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure health conditions. That’s because the FDA defines dietary supplements as food, not as drugs. It’s up to the manufacturer to be sure that an herbal health product or supplement is safe before it is sold.
The FDA can take herbal health products or supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe (for example, if they cause serious adverse effects) or are found to contain ingredients that aren’t listed on the label (for example, harmful substances).
How can I find out what is in herbal health products and supplements?
By law, manufacturers of herbal health products and supplements are responsible for making sure their labels are accurate and truthful. The FDA requires the following information on labels:
- Name of the product or supplement.
- Name and the address of the manufacturer or distributor.
- Complete list of ingredients.
- Amount of product or supplement in the container or package.
Avoid taking or using any herbal health product or supplement that does not list this information.
The National Institutes of Health Dietary Supplement Label Database is an online database that gives label information for thousands of dietary supplements. You can look up supplements by brand name, active ingredient, or manufacturer.
How can I use herbal health products or supplements safely?
Don’t take any herbal health products or supplements without talking to your family doctor first. If you do use an herbal health product or supplement, read the directions on the label to learn how much to take and how often to take it. You should never take more than the recommended amount. If you have any questions about how much to take, ask your doctor.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternativen Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements are good sources of information about herbal health products and supplements.
How can I safely store herbal health products and supplements?
Store all herbal health products and supplements up and away, out of reach and sight of young children. Do not store them in a place that is hot and humid (for example, a bathroom or bathroom cabinet). Keeping these products in a cool, dry place will help keep them from becoming less effective before their expiration date.
Is it safe to take herbal health products and supplements if I have health problems?
Herbal health products and supplements may not be safe if you have certain health problems, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. Children and older adults also may be at increased risk of adverse effects from these products, because their bodies process the ingredients differently.
If you are going to have surgery, tell your doctor about any herbal health products and supplements you use. These products can cause problems with surgery, including bleeding problems with anesthesia. You should stop using herbal health products or supplements at least two weeks before surgery, or sooner if your doctor recommends it.
Whether you have a health problem or not, it is always best to talk to your family doctor before taking any herbal health product or supplement.
Can herbal health products or supplements change the way OTC or prescription medicines work?
Yes. Herbal health products or supplements can affect the way the body processes drugs. When this happens, your medicine may not work the way it should. For example, St. John’s wort reduces the amount of certain drugs absorbed by the body. When this happens, the drugs may not be absorbed at high enough levels to help the health conditions for which they are prescribed. This can cause serious problems.
If you take any OTC or prescription medicines, talk to your doctor before taking any type of herbal health product or supplement.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know if I need to take an herbal supplement?
- How do I know how much of an herbal supplement to take?
- What herbal supplements might be beneficial for me?
- Can any herbal supplements interfere with any of my prescriptions?
- Do herbal supplements cause side effects?
- Is there anyone who should avoid taking herbal supplements?
- How do I choose the right herbal supplements?
- Can I take herbal supplements if I’m pregnant or nursing?
- What herbal supplements are safe for children?
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Herbs and Supplements
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Botanical Dietary Supplements
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD)
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Dietary Supplements
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.