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Yet some herbal supplements — including
products labeled as “natural” — have drug-like
effects that can be dangerous. So it’s important
to do your homework and investigate potential
benefits and side effects of herbal supplements
before you buy. And be sure to talk with your
doctor, especially if you take medications, have
chronic health problems, or are pregnant or
breast-feeding.
Are herbal
supplements safe?
Herbal supplements are regulated by the FDA,
but not as drugs or as foods. They fall under a
category called dietary supplements. The rules
for dietary supplements are as follows:
Manufacturers don’t have to seek FDA
approval before putting dietary supplements
on the market. In addition, companies
can claim that products address a nutrient
deficiency, support health or are linked to
body functions — if they have supporting
research and they include a disclaimer that
the FDA hasn’t evaluated the claim.
Manufacturers must follow good
manufacturing practices to ensure that
supplements are processed consistently and
meet quality standards. These regulations
are intended to keep the wrong ingredients
and contaminants, such as pesticides and
lead, out of supplements, as well as make
sure that the right ingredients are included
in appropriate amounts.
Once a dietary supplement is on the market,
the FDA is responsible for monitoring
its safety. If the FDA finds a product to
be unsafe, it can take action against the
manufacturer or distributor or both, and
may issue a warning or require that the
product be removed from the market.
These regulations provide assurance that
herbal supplements meet certain quality stand-
ards and that the FDA can intervene to remove
dangerous products from the market.
The rules do not, however, guarantee that
herbal supplements are safe for anyone to use.
Because many supplements contain active
ingredients that have strong effects in the body,
these products can pose unexpected risks. For
example, taking a combination of herbal sup-
plements or using supplements together with
prescribed medications could lead to harmful,
even life-threatening results. For this reason,
it’s important to talk with your doctor before
using herbal supplements.
How do you know what’s in
an herbal supplement?
The FDA requires that the following informa-
tion be included on the labels of all herbal
supplements:
The name of the herbal
supplement
The name and address of
manufacturer or distributor
A complete list of ingredients -
either in the Supplement Facts
panel or listed beneath it
Serving size, amount and active
ingredient
If you don’t understand something on an
herbal supplement’s label, ask your doctor or
pharmacist for an explanation.
Herbal
supplements
aren’t right
for everyone.
Get the facts
before you
buy.
Echinacea
to prevent
colds. Ginkgo
to improve
memory.
Flaxseed
to lower
cholesterol.
The list
of herbal
remedies
goes on and
on.
Herbal supplements, sometimes called
botanicals, aren’t new. Plants have been used
for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.
However, herbal supplements haven’t been
subjected to the same scientific scrutiny and
aren’t as strictly regulated as medications. For
example, makers of herbal supplements don’t
have to get approval from the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) before putting their
products on the market.
An easy way to compare ingredients in products is by using the Dietary Supplements Labels
Database, which is available on the National Library of Medicine’s website. The database
has information on the ingredients for thousands of dietary supplements sold in the United
States. You can look up products by brand name, uses, active ingredient or manufacturer.
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