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Herbs May Be Beneficial As Well As Dangerous

          There is growing evidence that herbal supplements can be as beneficial as drugs in the right situations. However, there is even more evidence that herbs used incorrectly, in individuals with chronic or long term disease, or in combination with other medications can have potentially dangerous effects. The traditional American medical community has been slow to embrace herbal supplements to use in conjunction with or instead of regulated medications. Many feel that there is good reasons to remain cautious as research on herbal supplements shows some positive results.

           A recent representative of the American Medical Association put it best " In God we trust. All others must have data." A variety of medical studies have shown that there are many herbs that clearly are beneficial when used as part of a treatment program. Research is also indicating that some products labeled " natural and organic" can have very destructive powers.

          "The important thing for people to remember", according to Tim Connolly, RPh., staff pharmacist at Marian Community Hospital, "is that herbal supplements act as drugs. Herbal medicines are considered "food supplements" and fall outside the control of the Food and Drug Administration, which closely regulates the release, composition and labeling of medications. With little regulation, herbal supplements may vary widely in strength and composition."

          "This is not to say that manufacturers of herbal products are going anything shady. Consumers need to be extra careful, with the absence of regulation, the products can vary so widely," cautioned the pharmacist. When a consumer purchases a drug regulated by the FDA, it is labeled as to the active ingredients and also lists other ingredients. The active ingredients and the dose are standardized. However, many herbal products are compromised of herbs grown is various areas of the world. Any gardener knows that no matter how they tend their garden, some years are better than others for tomatoes, for example. Herbal products are subject to the same variations in weather and farming techniques. It is even possible for the fertilizers as well as pesticides used to cultivate herbs to be present in the final product.

          While patients need to exercise more caution when considering and herbal supplement, there are several that have been researched and found possible effective in specific medical situations. "Pharmacists, especially those in retail situations are being asked about herbal supplements on a regular basis," according to Connolly. "Many times a patient doesn't think of asking his or her doctor about a possible interaction with their present medications and an herbal product. But when they are in the drug store and are browsing while they wait for their prescription, questions usually occur as they see a product recently advertised or discussed by someone."

           As people often have more than one physician, they also shop around with their prescriptions and may use several pharmacies. This can be dangerous, cautioned the pharmacist. A pharmacist can only caution about possible drug interactions or drug and herbal supplement interactions when he or she is aware of all the products a patient is taking.

          "As we better understand the effect of herbs through research, there is much patients can do to get the best possible benefit," added the pharmacist. "Look for products that are standardized, many now bear the initials, GMP for Good Manufacturing Practices. Also, look for products made in this country." 

           The following are herbal supplements that have been researched and have shown positive effects. However, even with positive reputations, many of these products can be harmful if used in combination with medications.

            Vitamin E is showing positive results in preventing and reducing the effects cardiac disease as well as Alzheimer's Disease. St. John's Wort is widely used to treat mild depression. It should not be used with medications that treat depression or for any patient receiving anesthesia.

            Echinacea, is used at the first sign of a cold or flu to alleviate the symptoms. it should only be used for short periods of time (6-8 weeks) and should not be used by anyone with an autoimmune disease, such as lupus and those who have allergies. Saw palmetto is seeing more accepted use in men who have a benign enlargement of the prostate. Ginkgo biloba is one of the most widely studied herbal supplements. it is an antioxidant and because it dilates blood vessels throughout the body, including the head, heart and lungs, it has been used for those with memory loss, for coronary artery disease as well as to improve blood flow in narrowed arteries. Ginkgo reduces the tendency to clot, much like aspirin and other anticoagulants. For patients already taking blood thinners, this can cause a potential problem. Garlic has been proven to also aid in the fight against heart disease, by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels. However, it may also interact with aspirin and other anticoagulants.

           Other herbal products such as Valerian have shown benefit in reducing insomnia. Black Cohosh and soy products are beings used to manage the symptoms of menopause and many people have reported a benefit from glucosamine for arthritis pain.

          One area where much caution is advised is all the various quick weight loss products that usually contain stimulants such as caffeine, Ma Huang or ephedra to decrease appetite as well as diuretics that promote water loss. There is no magic pill for weight loss and these preparations can do much harm, especially in those with blood pressure problems. These products also interact dangerously with many cough and cold preparations.

            "Potentially, there is much good that can come from herbal supplements," concluded the pharmacist. "Patients need to be hones with themselves and their medical professionals to gain the most benefit. Supplements should not take the place of a healthy lifestyle. The many benefits of a nutritious diet and exercise program can't be bottled."   

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