Echinacea, ephedra, evening primrose oil, garlic, ginger, ginseng, St. John's Wort, selenium, shark cartilage--these are just a few of the natural medicines that millions of people are using. But do they work? Medical authorities often argue against them; alternative medicine advocates tout them. What's a consumer to do, while waiting for modern science to catch up with often ancient practices?
The answer: BE CAREFUL.
When I studied Pharmacy I learned about the powerful uses and misuses of these medications which later became the basis for many of the prescription drugs we use today. When prescribed, these herbs were compounded and dispensed based on patient weight and age and the symptoms they hoped would be alleviated--a practice you won't find at your local nutrition center. The downside was the inevitable side effects in medications that could not be controlled with the direct hit most prescription drugs have today.
Along the way, the drug products that emerged from laboratory and human research in studies where no prejudice could be brought to bear became regulated for human safety. The herbs did not. They remain the domain of the food part of the FDA which, quite frankly, does not have the manpower nor has organized the resources to deal with the overwhelming interest in these medicines that has emerged in recent years.
Now people who would never allow a restaurant to put MSG on their food and worry excessively about the ill effects of Nutrasweet or other "chemicals" in our well regulated food supply think nothing of going to a "natural food" or "nutrition" store or taking the advice of a perky $6/hr. salesperson before plunking down money for a "natural" medicine.
Don't be foolish. Herbs ARE drugs. They interact with prescription drugs. They do more than alleviate symptoms and they rarely work on only one part of the body. They are often not standardized (that means each pill delivers a different dose) and many of them are dispensed in direct contrast to the clarion call of the medical slogan, "DO NO HARM."
There is merit to the use of some herbal products as an alternative or adjunct to prescription drugs. In some cases they may work as well or better than prescriptions that are far more expensive and difficult to acquire. BUT, with few exceptions, because they are not regulated or standardized and because, in many cases, they are being sold by people interested in "helping" you -- as long as you listen to them, you put yourself in jeopardy.
Agreed, doctors don't know enough about herbal products. They have a hard enough time keeping up with the thousands of prescription drugs that are available to them. Your resources for information should be people who have the educational background, experience and commitment to their career. Two new books that can answer your questions are; The American Pharmaceutical Association's Practical Guide to Natural Medicines ($55) and a new PDR for Herbal Medications ($75). Expensive? Yes. But you're worth it.
Meantime, if you have a question about any herbal product, write me at the Ask A Question icon at my web site. I'll post the answer for EVERYONE to read!! And watch the SMART PHARMACY section for more information on individual "natural" medicines from this pharmacist's perspective.
Have a healthy week.
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