THURSDAY, Dec. 16 (HealthDay News) -- People have been using
herbal supplements for centuries to cure all manner of ills and
improve their health. But for all the folk wisdom promoting the use
of such plants as St. John's wort and black cohosh, much about
their effect on human health remains unknown.
But the federal government is spending millions of dollars to
support research dedicated to separating the wheat from the chaff
when it comes to herbal supplements.
"A lot of these products are widely used by the consumer, and we don't have evidence one way or the other whether they are safe and effective," said Marguerite Klein, director of the Botanical Research Centers Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "We have a long way to go. It's a big job."
In August, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements awarded
about $37 million in grants to five interdisciplinary and
collaborative dietary supplement centers across the nation. The
grants were part of a decade-long initiative that so far has
awarded more than $250 million toward research to look into the
safety and efficacy of health products made from the stems, seeds,
leaves, bark and flowers of plants.
Reliance on botanical supplements faded in the mid-20th century
as doctors began to rely more and more on scientifically tested
pharmaceutical drugs to treat their patients, said William
Obermeyer, vice president of research for ConsumerLab.com, which
tests supplement brands for quality.
But today, herbal remedies and supplements are coming back in a
big way. People in the United States spent more than $5 billion on
herbal and botanical dietary supplements in 2009, up 22 percent
from a decade before, according to the American Botanical Council,
a nonprofit research and education organization.
The increase has prompted some concern from doctors and health
researchers. There are worries regarding the purity and consistency
of supplements, which are not regulated as strictly as
"One out of four of the dietary supplements we've quality-tested over the last 11 years failed," Obermeyer said. The failure rate increases to 55 percent, he said, when considering botanical products alone.
Some products contain less than the promoted amount of the
supplement in question -- such as a 400-milligram capsule of
echinacea containing just 250 milligrams of the herb. Other
products are tainted by pesticides or heavy metals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned supplement makers
on Dec. 15 that any company marketing tainted products could face
criminal prosecution. The agency was specifically targeting
products to promote weight loss, enhance sexual prowess or aid in
body building, which it said were "masquerading as dietary
supplements" and in some cases were laced with the same active
ingredients as approved drugs or were close copies of those drugs
or contained synthetic synthetic steroids that don't qualify as
But even when someone takes a valid herbal supplement, it may
not be as effective when taken as a pill or capsule rather than
used in the manner of a folk remedy. For example, an herb normally
ground into paste as part of a ceremony might lose its
effectiveness if prepared using modern manufacturing methods,
"You move away from the traditional use out of convenience, and you may not have the same effect," he said.
Researchers also are concerned that there just isn't a lot of
evidence to support the health benefits said to be gained from
herbal supplements. People may be misusing them, which can lead to
poor health and potential interactions with prescription drugs.
"Consumers often are taking them without telling their doctor, or taking them in lieu of going to the doctor," Klein said.
Botanical research efforts that received recent federal funding
Despite the concerns of the medical community, researchers
believe there are a lot of valid health benefits that can be
derived from botanical supplements. These benefits just need to be
proven in the lab.
"We wouldn't be supporting a multi-million dollar program if we didn't feel there was potential," Klein said.
The Office of Dietary Supplements at the U.S. National
Institutes of Health has more about
herbs and botanical supplements.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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