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article imageUnregulated Herbal Supplements Pose Serious Health Risks

By Carol Forsloff     Mar 9, 2009 in Health
While visiting with a friend a few days ago I happened to mention that I am diabetic and sometimes have problems sleeping. She said, “That's okay, I can cure that,” then gave me kava. It's likely she didn't know kava is risky for those with diabetes
That's because she went on to say, “I take herbs mostly since so many doctors don't know what they're doing.”
My friend, whom I'll call Gayle for this discussion, is a retired school teacher and physical fitness buff. She told me she hoped that as a journalist I might let my readers know that the Food and Drug Administration wanted to issue controls over the supplement industry. “That could cause prices to go up,” she explained. She went on to say doctors didn't know much about supplements and would have trouble deciding which herbs might be good for certain ailments. I worried about that since science warns it's risky to mix herbals and prescription medications without knowing the potential effects. I also wondered whether my friend had the training in medicine and chemistry that could help her decide what quantities of herbals would work best for a given ailment or a specific individual and how they might interact with over-the-counter or prescription drugs.
This year an online medical journal reported the risks of mixing herbal supplements with certain medications prior to surgery. It turns out that the risks include serious neurological problems, cardiac effects and even death.
Around 79 per cent of Americans take dietary supplements, according to a report from a nutritional journal. Supplement companies aren't required to report to the FDA either the products they sell or the ingredients used. They are, however, required to report certain “adverse events," such as hospitalizations, birth defects or death. Good manufacturing practices are also provided that related to purity of the herbs contained in some of these supplements.
Kava is a well-known herb in Hawaii and used in Samoa as part of ritual drinking for pleasure as well as for relaxation. It has been found to aid in sleep. On the other hand, long-term use has also been shown to cause liver problems in some people. For diabetics, use of kava could be dangerous since one of the risks of diabetes is liver damage. But it isn't likely the person who offers kava from a kitchen cabinet knows all this and looks up the facts before advocating its use for sleep or relaxation.
Researchers have found that certain herbs shouldn't be used with over-the-counter pain relievers. Especially risky are those with anti-platelet activity that includes such herbs as bilberry, dong quai, feverfew, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, turmeric and willow. This is particularly true for those anticipating surgery. Would the ordinary person offering a supplement know that?
The medical community reports there are risks involved with certain herbal supplements which is why the FDA periodically considers regulating them. Some doctors, like mine, knowing that many people use herbals and supplements, ask for a list of them along with other medicines a patient may be taking.
It would seem reasonable to ask who has the best training on a routine basis to know what chemicals might or might not be favorable for a given condition, my friend with her degree in elementary education or the doctor at the local clinic. Surely those associated with the FDA are asking that same question.
More about Supplements, Health risks, Food drug administration
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