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, and other "expert" sources, herbal medication works just as well as prescriptions from your doctor. (At least, that's what the Internet tells them.) But what are the real facts? Could natural cures 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 supplements without understanding what they do. "Before you take herbal medications, make sure you are educated about their pros and cons," said Dr. Christopher Roller, a pharmacist at Central Utah Clinic. As someone who works with medications on a daily basis, Dr. Roller stresses that you should always investigate the potential side effects of anything you put in your body. Here is some information to serve as a foundation for your personal research.
Pro: Natural medications are, well, natural
Dr. Roller shares that there are reasons to look into herbal alternatives. "There may be fewer differences between ‘natural medicine' 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 to antibiotics to new emerging cancer treatments, naturally occurring compounds are an excellent source of healing for modern medicine. Nearly 25 percent of drugs prescribed worldwide are based on active ingredients derived from plants. In fact, of the 177 drugs approved for treating cancer, 70 percent are based on natural products.
Con: 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)," says 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 medications, it is even more important to research potential benefits or side effects, especially related to certain 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 for anyone's use. Any supplement could have potential side effects, and these negative consequences can increase when taken with other over-the-counter or prescription medications. Be sure you speak to your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you taking in addition to the herbal supplement you are considering.
Research can help you make an informed decision
"It is against the law for manufacturers of herbal supplements to have specific claims to the efficacy of their marketed product, but that doesn't stop these companies from inferring certain benefits of their products," Dr. Roller says. "Be consumer savvy 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 be helpful to make an educated decision. First, there are great resources available that show true scientific research and findings. Both the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements have websites that can help you make informed decisions on the safety and efficacy of herbal products. Second, remember that your doctor and local pharmacist will be able to help you make good decisions regarding your health. 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 Avon rep," Dr. Roller recommends. "Be smart about your heath and ask questions." Remember to be safe and follow the supplement instructions, keep track of what you take, and be careful with any other medications or supplements you might be taking.