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About herbs and non-herbal supplements

By Salvador Quiroz

To conclude our series on supplements, let’s mention a few things about herbs and non-herbal products. We all know that herbs are the basis for some of our most helpful medicines, such as aspirin, morphine, digitalis and cortisone. And scientists are still discovering medicinal mysteries in plants. For example, the new anti-cancer drug, paclitaxel (Taxel), is derived from the bark and needles of the Pacific yew tree.

But while some herbal remedies show promise, there is little evidence that most of the herbal remedies Americans spend US$700 million a year on provide any health benefits at all. Not only that, but some have significant health risks. In addition, there is no guarantee that product purity or potency is consistent, let alone safe. At a minimum, use these precautions: don’t use herbal remedies for serious illnesses; do not give herbs or other dietary supplements to children, and don’t use herbal supplements if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Sometimes there are interactions with other medications you may be taking, but because allopathic doctors know little or nothing about herbs, you may be at a dead end. Can you imagine asking your doctor whether or not stephonia interacts with your blood pressure medication?

Here is a list of possible health effects on some widely promoted herbal supplements:

Comfrey – Also called barage and calf’s foot; it can cause liver and kidney disease.

Chaparsol – It is non-toxic when used in a tea, but when taken in pill form it can cause acute toxic hepatitis.

Echinacea – May increase resistance to upper respiratory infections, but continued use decreases effects. Some allergic reactions have been reported.

Germanium – Long-term use can lead to kidney damage and death.

Ginkgo biloba – May dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow to your brain as well as aid circulation in your legs, but side effects can include gastrointestinal problems, headaches and allergic skin reactions.

Ginseng – Ginsenosides, the active ingredients found in ging-sen root, may enhance immunity, but many ginseng products contain little or none of the active ingredient. Gingsenosides can increase blood pressure.

Jin bu huan – A sedative that has caused hepatitis in adults and drowsiness, slow heartbeat and slow breathing in children.

Kombucha tea – This herbal tea, also called mushroom tea, kuass tea, kwassan and kangasok, is really a colony of yeast and bacteria. It can cause liver and often organ damage, gastrointestinal upset and death.

Lobelia – Also called Indian tobacco. Low doses act like a mild stimulant to help open airways and ease breathing. Large doses can cause convulsions, coma and death.

St. John’s Wort – May be an effective treatment for mild to moderately severe depression. Further studies for possible side effects are needed.

Saw Palmetto – May improve urinary flow in men with non-cancerous enlarged prostate. Teas made from Saw palmetto are not effective. Use with a doctor’s supervision as it is not a substitute for conventional medical treatment.

Stephania – Also called Magnolia. Used in weight loss preparations, this herb has caused kidney disease and resulted in kidney dialysis and transplants in Europe.

Yohimbine – Sold as an aphrodisdiac (for which it is ineffective). Yohimbine can cause tremors, anxiety, high blood pressure and rapid heart beat.

Not all supplements come from herbs or vitamins and minerals. The following are three that have been widely promoted:

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) – Banned before 1994, DHEA is a hormone. It has been promoted as a treatment for everything from heart disease to cancer, to Alzheimer’s disease. None of these claims have been proven. Side effects may include acne, increased facial hair and deepened voice in women and increased risk of breast and prostate cancer.

DMSO (Dimethyl Sulfoxide) – This is an industrial solvent not approved by the FDA for human use. It may releive pain from sore muscles when rubbed on the skin, but is no more effective than Ben-Gay.

Melatonin – This is a hormone produced in your brain, more specifically, in the pituitary gland. It is thought to set your body’s sleep cycle. Supplements may reduce effects of jet lag when taken for short periods. There is less evidence to support claims that it will increase the immune function and aid sleep. Claims that melatonin lowers cholesterol and prevents breast cancer are unproven. Melatonin does prevent ovulation so do not use if you want to become pregnant.


Dr. Salvador Quiroz, Internal Medicine and Kidney Disease, Mayo Clinic. Tel: 152 2329.


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