For many, taking herbal supplements is one of the best options to treat common ailments without having to worry about troublesome side effects experienced from traditional medicine. They are often deemed as “safe and natural” ways to remedy health problems ranging from mood disorders to disease.
I have used them in my practice for many years with good success, but I am careful about the products I recommend. I have found there to be many inferior products on the market. What’s listed on the label is all-too-often not what’s in the bottle!
While many herbal supplement companies make various claims, they have not been evaluated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and therefore cannot formally claim to treat any disease, disorder, or illness, even though people have sworn by them for centuries.
In recent news, herbal supplements have been under scrutiny at the big box stores who are accused of carrying and marketing various herbal supplements which actually don’t contain the ingredients they promise.
Retailers in the Hot Seat
While the smaller stores and chains aren’t in the “hot seat,” the retailers GNC, Walgreens, Walmart, and Target were ordered to, “immediately stop selling store brands of herbal dietary supplements due to allegedly mislabeled or adulterated product content” according to a Forbes article.
The state of New York issued cease-and-desist orders to the four retailers for the marketing of supplements: Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Valerian root. The New York Attorney General’s researcher, Dr. James A. Schulte II concluded that, “only 4 to 41 percent of products contained DNA from the plant species indicated on the product label.”
Although the four giant retailers have tried to counter, criticizing the methods of testing done by the Attorney General; David Schardt, Senior Nutritionist of the Center for Science in the Public Interest applauds the efforts and believes, “When the advertised herbs aren’t even in many of the products, it’s a sign that this loosely regulated industry is urgently in need of reform. Attorney General Schneiderman has done what federal regulators should have done a long time ago.”
Of the four big box retailers, Walmart received the poorest marks with only “4 percent of the products tested actually containing DNA from the plants listed on the labels” according to a Consumer Affairs report. Target tested highest at 41%.
Contaminants found in the supplements included: allium, pine, wheat, grass, rice mustard, rice, citrus, dracaena, cassava, palm, daisy, legume, asparagus, pea, wild carrot, asparagus, primrose, alfalfa/clover, spruce, ranuncula, and Echinacea. This type of false advertising is not only illegal, but also dangerous. There leaves the potential for allergic and adverse reactions to the hidden ingredients.
You’re also not getting what you paid for!
Until the industry has some type of reform, it’s smart for consumers to be cognizant of the herbal supplements they purchase from both an economic and health-related standpoint. Here are some ways to protect yourself when you purchase herbal supplements:
Discuss Brand Quality With Your Integrative/Functional Medicine Doctor
Doctors who specialize in integrative/functional medicine spend a great deal of time in advanced training. They utilize herbal supplements in their practices. They know the best manufacturers.
Don’t Take Herbal Supplements in Combination with Medications Without Your Doctor’s OK
In some cases, herbal supplements can decrease or increase the effectiveness of drugs. For example, St. John’s Wort can speed the breakdown of many drugs and decrease their effectiveness. Some herbal supplements have the potential to interact with certain medication.
Check the Herbal Supplements You Do Choose
If you feel like taking an herbal supplement is your best option, it is wise to discuss this with your doctor. If your doctor is an integrative/functional medicine specialist, she likely has high quality, professional grade products to recommend.
Another important area to consider: Chinese herbs. While very effective for many conditions, I recommend they do not actually come from China, where they are often treated with pesticides containing lead and mercury. Drying the herbs to concentrate them for human consumption also concentrates the heavy metals they contain. Check the source of your Chinese herbs!