The use of herbs and herbal products has become broadly accepted in our contemporary culture. Consumer surveys consistently find that nearly half of all Americans now use herbs (1,2) a statistic that is particularly remarkable when we realize that today’s herbal products “industry” is just over a quarter century old. In spite of this widespread acceptance of herbal products in individual self-care choices, misconceptions exist as to the regulation, safety and effectiveness of herbal products.
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The decision to use herbs for their health promoting value is, as with all health decisions, a personal one. There are, however, many good reasons to consider herbal products as complements to your own health care. The best reason, however, may be the fact that herbs and herbal products, with their incredibly wide use throughout time and place, continue to provide real health benefits while maintaining a remarkable safety profile. Readily available natural substances were the first medicines used by humans.
Plants that enjoy broad culinary and therapeutic usage are generally safe. We can flavor our food with any number of herbs to make a meal more flavorful. We can appreciate a delicious cup of peppermint leaf or ginger root tea, or benefit from the soothing properties of marshmallow root or the bark of slippery elm. We can take an herbal supplement containing dandelion root or saw palmetto berries, or any number of the other herbs.
Federal law requires that every food product, including herbal supplements, is free of “adulteration” and is not “misbranded.” This legal language translates into a requirement that all foods and supplements have a reasonable expectation of safety when offered for sale and when used as directed. So manufacturers of soups, cereals, and supplements all have an obligation to sell only safely made and properly labeled goods, and can find their products subject to seizure should they fail to do so. In addition, manufacturers of herbal products are specifically required to limit their ingredients to either those that were already in the market prior to passage of landmark legislation in 1994 or those that a company can convincingly show, by providing information to the Food and Drug Administration, to be safe.
Herbs are rich mixtures of diverse natural compounds. Although the effects of certain herbs will be observed within a short time after consumption, others are more subtle and provide their health promoting benefits gradually. If you have ever used ginger root (Zingiber officinale) or peppermint leaf (Mentha x piperita) tea to promote healthy digestion, you know that you can feel the comforting effects of these herbs almost as you drink the soothing brew.
Of course you should! And because your doctor is, ideally, your primary partner in managing your health, you should insist that your doctor, no matter their degree of training in herbs, receive that information respectfully. In telling your doctor of your decision to use an herbal product, however, don’t be surprised if you find that your knowledge of herbs is more advanced than theirs. You might suggest (again, respectfully) that they expand their education by using some of the internet resources listed below, or by purchasing and studying some of the written references identified there. At the same time, remember that your prescribing physician has a responsibility to safely oversee your use of any prescription drugs. If your doctor is concerned that a pharmaceutical substance might interact with an herbal product, it is prudent to accept such advice.
Take them with the food in which they would normally occur, and if at all possible, in the middle of the meal, not before or after
- B vitamins in the meddle of your biggest meal
- Vitamin C and bioflavenoids with juice
- Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E) with food containing oil
A vitamins can be taken together. Minerals, if taken in chelated form, can also be taken with any vitamins. Un-chelated minerals can interact negatively with vitamins and with digestion and are not recommended.
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