glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

*Although herbal medicines are natural, and some have been in use for thousands of years, this does not necessarily mean that they are always safe and without side effects.

There may be problems of quality control, standardization, and impurities among the patent herbal therapies. They can cause herb-drug interactions, induce allergies, and cause other adverse reactions. Some are toxic and some contain little or no active ingredients.

The federal government does not require that herbal remedies and dietary supplements be tested in the same way that standard medicines are tested before they are sold.

Herbs, and their extracts, have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties. Many traditional uses are based on superstition, or spiritual basis, with no clinical trials or research to support the results. Some traditional medicinal herb use is based on trial and error, and is supported by real-world, results based evidence. Traditional medicine is based strongly in herbal remedies, whether supported by real-world results or spiritual basis.

Western medicine is beginning to look at the use of herbal remedies as alternatives to synthetic drugs as well. Most modern pharmaceuticals have a historical base in herbal medicine, and many are derived from herbal extracts, at least initially.

I shudder when I hear of people who brag about ignoring their doctors’ recommendations because either “they don’t believe in Doctors’ medicine”, or because “an herbalist looked into their eyes” and said that they had just the thing for their medical condition.

I recently heard a story about a tragic example of how wrong these types of decisions can go, and how costly (in terms of life and permanent risk to health).

For years, I have not written or spoke publicly on my disdain for what I consider to be charlatan (somebody who falsely claims to have special skill or expertise) behavior in the name of “healing’ people, and helping them learn the “natural way”. But as these incidents continue to happen more and more, and families are devastated by the senseless loss or injury of a loved one, I am silent no more. I have to live with my own conscience. I have been given the privilege of being a source of trusted and valued information, and so add this to the growing list of topic I will write about.

The use of dietary supplements has risen tremendously in recent years. Increasingly, people now take herbs and other “natural” substances in addition to vitamins and minerals. These so-called nutritional products are not as strictly regulated under the law as prescription drugs, however, and to use them wisely, consumers should know about the risks and benefits associated with supplements. Dietary supplements are billed as immune triggers, weight-loss wonders, “brain power”, muscle-expanding elixirs, and much more. They can be bought from the shelves of health food stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. They are a category of nutritional additives that once included just vitamins and minerals, but now also encompass herbs, amino acids, fish oils, hormones, and many other substances. Not only is the array of supplements dazzling, but also their popularity is soaring.

Sales of vitamins and minerals in America alone have reached $25 billion annually! And with the USA accounting for barely 5% of the world’s population, we buy over 30% of all of these supplements. The reason for this is partly as a result of rising medical costs which encourages both prevention and self-care. Like many things, African Americans, and other underserved communities, are impacted disproportionately, and turn to these “alternatives” in larger relative numbers.

Even science has lent credibility to a handful of the claims made for dietary supplements. Some studies have suggested, for example, that vitamins may help prevent serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. All this has fed a media frenzy regarding the latest research into natural remedies. We see Madison Avenue using people, places and things we care about to appeal to our emotions, just as would in selling us cars and “happy meals”. I was shocked (even though I shouldn’t have been) to hear a prominent national civil rights leader as a spokesperson for a “new” herbal product for men’s prostate conditions.

At the same time, supplements of all kinds have moved from niche retailers such as health food stores into drugstores and supermarkets, making them more widely available and also more appealing to the mainstream public. And the claims have gone far beyond what science has shown, appealing to everybody from athletes to people with chronic diseases.

“True” herbalism encompasses scientific testing, honest reporting of the results, and safe use of effective herbs by informed practitioners and the public. It also includes the production and ethical marketing of herbal products. True herbalism, which brings honor to the wonder-filled world of plants, does exist as part of the science of pharmacology. However, there is a dark side to herbalism.

Herbal medicine has long been an alternative for those seeking health-related remedies without using powerful pharmaceuticals. While these herbs tend to have a lesser degree of side effects, they can still cause adverse reactions if used improperly.

Herbal medicines, like other forms of medications, can sometimes contain other additives to help preserve the pill or enhance the effect of the herb. It is important to be aware of what is in your herbal medicines, particularly if you are allergic to certain additives. This information is sometimes readily available on the bottle; at other times, you may have to do some research before beginning to ingest any herb.

For the many untested pills, capsules, powders, and liquids that remain on the shelves, it pays to be cautious. Here are a few tips for dealing with the sometimes-confusing supplement dilemma:

  • Before taking a supplement, find out what evidence supports its advertised benefits-and dangers.
  • It is a good idea to get information from a variety of sources, not just one book or magazine article.
  •  Learn what “real” scientists know about safe dosages and do not exceed them.

Somewhere, as you read this column, there is someone either dead or suffering from not having the benefit of this information.

Everyone knows consumers buy supplements to prevent or treat what ails them in order to escape the sometimes adverse, allergic, or dizzying side effects they’ve had from prescription drugs. The reason people buy supplements is to have a better quality of life. Consumers also want a safer quality of supplements and foods. People buy supplements also out of fear.

The real questions are not whether the supplements make you healthier, but are they safe? Are you sure that the person “prescribing” seems to know what they’re talking about, but are they really trained in helping you or are you just a good customer?  How do these people become a “Doctors” anyway?

Remember that just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean that it is safe to take.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.

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