People tend to assume that so-called natural remedies are safer than prescription drugs, but this often isn't the case. Look at it this way: Cobra venom and dysentery are natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. A patient guide published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association enumerates the risks of taking herbal supplements—a subject too often side-stepped by the industry's laissez-faire approach to regulation.
"Differently from 'conventional' medications, these medications are not tested in clinical studies," co-author Graziano Onder told Live Science. "For this reason, clear knowledge on their efficacy and risks is lacking."
The guide includes a long list of possible adverse reactions to supplements, including “allergic reactions, rashes, asthma, headaches, dizziness, agitation, dry mouth, seizures, fatigue, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.” If that’s not enough, the guide continues, “Severe side effects have also been reported.”
More than half of Americans take at least one supplement every day. But just what is it that we’re swallowing? A report from the office of New York’s Attorney General (AG) released last February says a number of common herbal remedies are missing major ingredients—the herbs—and making up for this lack with fillers and contaminants. The AG issued cease and desist notices to four major retailers, ordering them to remove these “adulterated and/or misleading” products from their shelves.
Three years ago, the FDA conducted DNA barcode testing on 44 different herbal products and found some big problems. More than one third of the products contained no trace of the herbs they professed to be, and many were contaminated. After reading this report, the AG initiated genetic testing on six name-brand supplements sold at Target, GNC, Walmart, and Walgreens.
Sure enough, products labeled "gingko biloba," "St. John’s wort," and "Valerian root" tested negative for, well, gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root. And several of the supplements contained allergens like wheat, soy, and peanuts, despite labels declaring them gluten- or soy-free.
“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” supplement safety expert Pieter Cohen told the New York Times. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.” All four retailers removed the problematic products from their shelves.
So what can you do to identify the helpful supplements from the potentially harmful? First, educate yourself. This page from the National Institutes of Health is a great place to start. Second, and we know we sound like a broken record here, but it’s super important: Talk to your doctor before you start or stop any supplement.