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The Green Pharmacy

Are herbal and other natural products scams or nature’s way to health?

By Christina Johnson   |   August 25, 2015

Many consumers may be wary of prescription medications and prefer “natural” products as gentler, safer alternatives. To a certain extent the sentiment is understandable since for most of human history people’s medicine cabinets have consisted of products from the natural world.

Even today, most medications we take were inspired or derived from plants, animals or microbial life. Some textbook examples include the serendipitous discovery of penicillin from bread mold; aspirin from willow tree bark; tetracycline from soil microbes, and the first birth control pills from wild yams. More recently and closer to home, the giant keyhole limpet (a marine gastropod) is being harvested in Baja California, Mexico for a blood protein used in drugs being tested for a variety of cancers.

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“The foundation for the majority of our drugs is the natural world,” said Candis Morello, PharmD, a professor of clinical pharmacy at Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. “But that does not mean that the billion-dollar supplement industry, which is full of hype and very little regulatory oversight, should be used as a person’s medicine cabinet.”

“It’s very much a buyer beware situation,” said Morello, who is also associate dean for student affairs. “Dietary supplement manufacturers and distributors do not need FDA approval to sell their products and they do not have to substantiate their products’ health claims. I am open to complementary medicine. But with my patients, I try to set some rules to protect their health and their wallets.”

Among them:

  • Look for the USP Verified dietary supplement seal on products. The USP verification mark indicates that the product has been rigorously tested for quality, purity, potency, performance and consistency and meets the FDA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices.
  • Set a predetermined period of time for trying a dietary product and continue monitoring your health status during this trial period with your doctor. If there is no improvement in your health status, re-evaulate the use of the supplement.
  • Be highly skeptical of any supplement that stretches your budget.
  • Keep your physician apprised of all supplements or herbal remedies you are taking. This is particularly important if you are on prescription medications for other health issues. Many supplements can interact with medications.

Morello notes that very simple, inexpensive botanical remedies and natural supplements are among the more widely recognized as having benefits. Some products on this list include:

Aloe vera: It can be used as a topical agent for soothing burns and can be ingested to reduce post-meal glucose highs associated with diabetes and pre-diabetes.

Black cohosh: The roots and rhizomes of this flowering plant can help treat hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. The plant was used medicinally to treat menopause by Native Americans.

Cranberry juice: The proanthocyanidins (antioxidants) in cranberry juice can treat and prevent urinary tract infections. The mechanism is not completely understood, but the proanthocyanidins may prevent adhesion of bacteria onto kidneys, bladder and urethra tissues.

Echinacea: A flower in the daisy family that, in one study, was as effective as Tamiflu in fighting influenza, with fewer side effects. The best results are seen with Echinacea whole root extract.

Fish oil: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have been repeatedly and convincingly shown to lower triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that at high levels may raise a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

Flaxseed (also known as linseed): One of the richest sources of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, flax seed has anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve joint pain. There is some evidence it may be able to modestly reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol concentration. To improve absorption, grind flaxseed and use promptly to prevent oxidation of the beneficial oils.

Ginger: All forms – powdered, fresh or candied – can relieve nausea and upset stomach in some people.

Mint leaves: Mint tea is an age-old digestion aid. Some herbalists may recommend covering steeping tea to help trap volatile oils. You can also crush and eat the leaves.

Psyllium seed husks: A soluble dietary fiber added to commercially sold laxatives, psyllium can also help control blood glucose levels. It can also bind to some medications so separate ingestion of psyllim and medications by one or two hours.

Saw palmetto: An extract of the fruit of a fan palm, saw palmetto has been shown in human research studies to reduce prostate-specific antigen levels, meaning it can decrease symptoms of an enlarged prostate.

“I tell my patients ‘safety is first,’” Morello said. “Dietary supplements are drugs just like any other medication and they need to be evaluated for drug interactions and potential adverse effects. If you are considering using one, it is essential to openly discuss it with your health care providers.”

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