You know that old saying, “Money doesn’t grow on trees?” Well, what if it applied to medicine? According to your next-door neighbor, the woman who sits in front of you in yoga class, the Internet and other “expert” sources, herbal medications work just as well as prescriptions from your doctor. But what are the real facts? Could natural cures for age-related health conditions be growing in our backyards?

It may be possible to have success with natural remedies, but that doesn’t mean you should start chugging wheatgrass shots and taking gingko biloba capsules without understanding how they might affect your body. “Before you take herbal medications, make sure you are educated about their pros and cons,” says Christopher Roller, PharmD, a pharmacist at Revere Health based in Provo, Utah. Dr. Roller stresses that consumers should always consult with their physicians and investigate the potential side effects of a substance before beginning a new regimen or making changes to their current one. Use the following information to help serve as a foundation for your personal research into herbal supplements for yourself and your aging loved ones.

Natural Medications Are, Well, Natural

Many people are more comfortable with the idea of taking a plant or other naturally derived medicine compared to a pharmaceutical that is synthesized in a laboratory. Dr. Roller agrees that there are viable reasons for considering herbal alternatives over pharmaceutical drugs. “However, there may be fewer differences between ‘natural medicines’ and pharmaceuticals than you think,” he says.

Plants are rich in a variety of compounds that have been used in medications for thousands of years. From phenols and antibiotics to newly emerging cancer treatments, naturally occurring compounds are an excellent source of healing for modern medical issues. In fact, nearly 25 percent of drugs prescribed worldwide are based on active ingredients derived from plants. Of the 177 drugs approved for treating cancer, 70 percent are based on natural products.

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Herbal Medicines Are Not FDA-Approved

Just because a medication is made from natural ingredients does not guarantee that it is safe or effective. “Herbal supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” notes Dr. Roller, “which means that they have not passed any safety, efficacy or human clinical trials.” Because these natural medications are not subjected to the same scrutiny as FDA-approved drugs, it is even more important to research potential benefits and side effects, especially related to certain specific health issues.

Though the FDA does require that herbal supplements follow good manufacturing procedures that ensure some level of quality, this in no way ensures that they are safe. Any supplement could have potential side effects, and the risk of negative consequences increases when taken with other over-the-counter or prescription medications. Be sure you speak to your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you’re taking in addition to the herbal supplement you are considering.

Herbal Medications Are Still Powerful Drugs

While supplements, herbs, vitamins and minerals may seem less intimidating than pharmaceutical drugs because they are naturally sourced, this doesn’t mean that they do not cause any adverse side effects or drug interactions.

Herbs and some plant-based products may actually prevent medicines from working the way they are supposed to in the body. These medicines can be those a doctor prescribes or even those available over the counter at the drug store. For example, the herb St. John’s wort, which some people use to treat symptoms of depression, may cause major interactions with other OTC and prescription drugs, including some antidepressants, blood thinners, antacids, antihistamines and steroids.

Your physician and pharmacist should have a complete list of all natural, OTC and prescription medications you are taking to help prevent any adverse effects. This is vitally important if you have any type of medical condition that affects how you process medications. Liver damage, kidney damage, heart disease, digestive issues and lifestyle factors can all have a significant effect on how one’s body metabolizes certain substances. In specific doses and combinations, natural compounds can still be detrimental to a person’s health, even if they do not have any serious medical issues.

Research Can Help You Make an Informed Decision

“It is against the law for manufacturers of herbal supplements to make specific claims to the efficacy of their marketed product, but that doesn’t stop these companies from inferring certain benefits,” Dr. Roller points out. “Be a savvy consumer and do your homework on what really works and what is just smoke and mirrors.”

There are some easy ways to access information that can help seniors and their family caregivers make educated decisions. Both the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements have websites that provide scientific research and findings on the safety and efficacy of herbal products. Second, remember that your doctor and local pharmacist are valuable sources of personalized medical advice. Finally, you can always contact the manufacturer if you have specific questions about a product.

“Herbal supplements can be a healthy alternative for treating certain disease states but remember to do your homework and don’t just trust your local supplement salesperson,” Dr. Roller recommends. “Be smart about your health and ask questions.” Remember to follow the supplement instructions, keep track of what you take, and consult a pharmacist or physician before adding or removing any natural, OTC or prescription drugs from your medication regimen.