The Truths and Myths of Herbal Products


If you can name a health problem, there is probably a herbal product that can be suggested for it.  Some herbal products are even said to cure whatever ails you.  Society’s growing interest in herbal products and other dietary supplements stems from a disappointment in conventional medicine.  Because herbal products are thought to be “natural”, many people believe that they are safe.  However, herbal products can be as toxic or even more toxic than prescription medicine.  In fact, many pharmaceutical drugs are developed from plants.  Another problem is that people tend to rely more on testimonials on the benefit of a herbal product rather than solid, scientific evidence.


Herbal Product

Reasons for Use (supported by some research)

Adverse Effect


  • Prevent and treat common cold, flu.
  • Treat upper and lower respiratory tract infections
  • Reaction in those allergic to daisy/chrysanthemum group of plants

Ephedra (Ma Huang)

  • Weight-loss dietary supplement
  • Decongestant for upper respiratory tract infections
  • Energy enhancement
  • Insomnia
  • Dizziness, headache, irritability
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Heart attack, heart palpitations, stroke, seizures
  • Reaction in patients taking certain types of anti-depressants


  • Prevent and reduce severity of migraines
  • Pain relief for arthritis
  • Mouth ulcerations
  • Nervousness, anxiety, tension
  • May interact with anticoagulants


  • Reduce stress and fatigue
  • Strengthen immune system
  • Boost energy and stamina
  • Insomnia
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Restlessness, nervousness
  • Should not be used with antihypertensive medications, warfarin, or certain anti-depressants

St. John’s Wort

  • Anti-depressant
  • Skin eruptions and rashes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Enhanced sedation
  • Impotence
  • Should not be used with anti-depressants, antihypertensive medications, certain cardiovascular medications, muscle relaxants


While there are some herbal products with potentially beneficial effects, they can still interact with other medications that you may be taking.  For example, gingko biloba, shown in some studies to improve memory, can increase the anticoagulant effect of some drugs and result in spontaneous and/excessive bleeding.  People who are currently using a herbal product should make sure that their physician is fully aware of the type and dose due to potential interactions with other medicines they might be taking.


Some important things to know about herbal products are:


·        Because herbs may contain different ingredients, it is often difficult to determine what exactly is in there and what ingredient is responsible for what health effect.


·        While some herbs are potentially beneficial, others can be quite toxic.  For herbs that do have some benefit, the effect is generally mild in comparison to conventional medicine.


·        It is difficult to get consistent dose in herbal products because there is a lot of variation in the amount and types of ingredients due to changes in soil, growing, and harvest conditions.


·       In contrast to prescription drugs and vitamin-mineral supplements, there are no regulations to ensure that that the amount of the “active” ingredient stated for a particular herbal product is actually present.  In fact, toxic impurities have been found in some herbal products.


·        Most herbal products are marketed without proof of their effectiveness or safety.  Health food stores are able to make claims such as “improves the immune system” or “slows down the aging process” even though there haven’t been any human studies to support them.  However, they do not go as far as to say a herbal product will prevent or cure an illness because it will then be classified as a drug.


Health Canada has a newly funded division called The Office of Natural Health Products.  Within a year (2002), a system to guarantee the quality and safety of herbal products should be in place.  Until that time, consumers should keep the following in mind:


·        Drug Identification Number (DIN) – this eight-digit number on the label indicates that the product has passed Health Canada’s review of its formulation, labeling, and directions for use


·        Directions for use, cautionary statements, indication of use (there may be more than one)


·        The lot number – this will identify the batch if it needs to be recalled


·        The expiry date gives an indication of its quality and potency


·        Responsible manufacturer’s would have their name, address and/or phone number for inquiries


There is no magic potion for better health.  Following Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating and keeping active is the best way to ensure that you remain healthy and age successfully.




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