Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Quick Guide: Herbal Supplements

Pointers for Herbal Supplement Use

  • Get advice from a health care provider you trust on herbal supplements.
  • Provide a list of all medications you are taking to your health care provider.
  • Do not use herbal supplements to treat serious illness: remember that a supplement is not a cure.
  • Don't take herbal supplements while trying to conceive.

The array of herbal supplements available to the public is staggering, and it's easy to become confused about which supplements to use, how much to take, and whether the herb has any significant health risks. As with vitamins and minerals, it's important to know the facts about herbal supplements. It is important to appreciate that government regulation of the herbal industry is not the same as it is for drugs. Don't rely on hearsay and second-hand testimonials; find a health care professional, online pharmacist or other trustworthy experts with whom you can discuss herbal supplements. Many herbal supplements work very well, but some can be ineffective or even dangerous.

Below you'll find a list of some of the more well-known herbal supplements, what they claim to do, what they've been proven to do, and whether or not they have any side-effects.

Echinacea Native Americans, who used it for a wide range of symptoms, discovered Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower. It is best known as an immune system booster and fever reducer. Echinacea is best taken at the first sign of illness: after eight weeks of use the body develops a resistance to the herb. Most reported side effects have involved allergic reactions.

Dong Quoi Dong quoi is perhaps the most commonly prescribed herb in traditional Chinese medicine. A member of the carrot family, dong quoi has been used to treat pain, fatigue, high blood pressure and menstrual problems. It should not be used while pregnant or breastfeeding, and may increase sun sensitivity.

Ginkgo Biloba Extracts from the ginkgo tree have been used to treat problems as varied as allergies and asthma, stroke, and varicose veins. Ginkgo biloba contains antioxidants, and has blood-thinning properties (one reason it is used in Europe to treat strokes). Because of its ability to thin the blood, patients on anticoagulants should avoid ginko biloba. Ginkgo can also cause allergic skin reactions, headaches, and mild stomach complaints.

Ginseng There are several types of ginseng, including Korean, Siberian and American. Generally, Korean ginseng is considered the most powerful. Ginseng treats stress, and Korean ginseng has been proven to increase physical and mental energy. It is also an antioxidant. Ginseng use is not recommended for people suffering from gastrointestinal disorders, patients with mental problems, nor pregnant or breastfeeding women. There is some evidence that it can cause insomnia and high blood pressure.

Flax Seed Flax seed, flax oil, or linseed, is the richest food source of essential fatty acids, which cannot be produced by the body and must be supplied by the diet. Flax seed contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to help prevent cardiovascular disorders. Flax seed also contains antioxidants and lignans (plant fibers) and some believe that it may help prevent certain cancers. There are no known side effects to taking flax seed.

Kava Kava Kava kava is a South Pacific plant that has been used to treat a wide variety of symptoms. It is most often taken for stress relief and sleeplessness, and appears to effectively treat menopausal symptoms. The FDA has issued an advisory that kava kava has the potential to cause serious liver injuries. People with existing liver problems should not take kava kava.

Spirulina A type of blue-green algae, spirulina contains many nutrients and trace elements. Spirulina is often used to supplement deficient diets. It stimulates the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria, and seems to strengthen the immune system. Claims that it may calm children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have yet to be verified. If spirulina grows in water containing heavy metals, mercury may be present in the algae, which can also be invaded by infectious organisms. For these reasons, make sure to purchase spirulina from reputable sources. Some people do experience side effects from spirulina, including diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.

Valerian Root Valerian root has been used for centuries to treat mild cases of insomnia. Valerian root can interact with certain medications, including some antidepressants, anxiety drugs, and medications for insomnia. Common side effects include headaches, restlessness and digestive upset. Talk with your doctor before taking valerian root.

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