As more and more people turn to herbal supplements for health issues ranging anywhere from weight loss to erectile dysfunction, serious consideration needs to be paid to the potentially harmful interactions between herbal supplements and over-the-counter or prescription medications. Although most people consider herbs safer than traditional Western medications because they’re natural, it’s important to recognize that any herb strong enough to have a healthful impact on your body is also strong enough to produce negative side effects and interact with other herbs or Western medicines.
Quai dong has been used in Asia for thousands of years to enhance female fertility, and ginko biloba is widely believed to enhance memory. However, either of these drugs used in conjunction with prescription blood thinners such as Coumadin or Ticlid, or even over-the-counter aspirin, can increase the risk of severe bleeding or stroke.
Herbalists often recommend St. John’s Wort for people experiencing mild to moderate depression, but if John’s Wort is mixed with any of the prescription serotonin reuptake inhibiting anti-depressants on the market, the interaction can cause confusion, fatigue, and muscle weakness. Use of St. John’s Wort with prescription anti-depressants has also been shown to depress the body’s ability to maintain stable levels of the anti-depressant in the blood stream, which can reduce its effectiveness.
Echinacea is touted as a wonder herb to improve your health by boosting your immune system, but that’s not always the best thing. Many people suffer from allergies or auto-immune diseases caused by immune systems that have already run wild. If these patients are taking corticosteroids to relieve their symptoms by suppressing their immune systems, echinacea may counteract the desired effect.
Serious insomniacs often swear by valerian root, but if it is taken in combination with over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids, it can result in oversedation.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as licorice can present a danger. Licorice can cause fluid retention, increased blood pressure, and potassium loss, which can be particularly deadly for anyone suffering from heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure. It also interacts directly with Digitalis and Thiazide.
The possibility of interaction is exacerbated by the fact that since herbal supplements are legally categorized as food supplements instead of drugs, they are unregulated by the FDA and therefore subject to very loose labeling laws. Studies have shown that herbal supplements often contain herbs that aren’t even listed on the label, and the doses of herbs present in the supplement may vary wildly from what the label claims.
It is always wise to consult a physician before beginning any course of herbal supplements. If a physician prescribes a new medication for you, be sure to remind him of any herbal supplements you may already be taking, because he may ask you to discontinue use if there is a possible interaction with the prescription medicine. Any time you go to a physician’s office or enter a hospital, include any herbal supplements you are talking when they ask you what prescription medications you are taking.
Herbal supplements can be used safely and efficaciously to promote good health and well being, but because they are active compounds that do interact with your body, they must be approached with the same caution as any other medication.