Herbs and Dietary Supplements are among the most popular CAM modalities used by consumers in the United States. Indeed, herbal supplements are so ubiquitous in today’s supermarkets that many people do not even realize that their use is technically classified as CAM. A number of major alternative medicine systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Naturopathy rely heavily on herbal medicine in their treatments. Please note that many herbal products contain multiple herbs, and that looking up the safety information on each individually will not necessarily give any indication of how they behave in the body in combination. For more information on specific commonly-used herbs, please see National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Herbs at a Glance.
A common misconception about herbs and dietary supplements is that they’ve been stringently tested for safety and efficacy prior to sale. This is not at all the case; in fact, the standards for testing dietary supplements are quite lax. For this reason, it is very important to do your own research and to consult your primary care provider prior to commencing use of an herb or dietary supplement. Herbs can have potentially harmful interactions with pharmaceuticals, other herbs, and even food.
The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) was passed in 1994 and remains controversial because of its relative lack of regulation of dietary supplements. As long as a manufacturer refrains from making a specific health claim (e.g. “cures cancer”) and includes some version of the following statement: “This statement has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” the manufacturer is legally able to make whatever general health claims they want (e.g. “boosts immunity” or “promotes healthy metabolism”).
These euphemistic statements are not required to be backed by any solid science despite misconceptions to the contrary. This is not to say that all manufacturers of dietary supplements intentionally mislead their consumers; many adhere to good manufacturing practices and refrain from making unfounded assertions about their products. However, when it comes to purchasing herbs and dietary supplements, the burden is on the consumer to draw conclusions on safety and efficacy. Again, consulting your licensed primary care provider is highly advised when it comes to making important health decisions.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.
7. Clinical Botanical Medicine: Second Edition Revised and Expanded by Eric Yarnell N.D., Kathy Abascal B.S., J.D., and Robert Rountree, M.D. Published by Mary Ann Liebert Inc. Publications, New Rochelle NY, 2009.