Herbs and Herbal Supplements

A number of herbal products have been found to be good for your health. Plants are known to contain certain biologically active compounds that are medicinally useful. For example, passion flower, hops, and valerian provide sedative effects for persons with insomnia, and valerian is also a safe, mild tranquilizer. Fennel and various mints have been successfully used to treat coughs and colds. Ginger is effective for preventing nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness, while licorice can help heal ulcers. Feverfew has been found useful in the treatment of migraine and rheumatoid arthritis.

Research on garlic has shown its value for lowering blood lipids and blood pressure, decreasing the clotting tendency of the blood, and providing protection against tumor growth. In addition to garlic and onions, other herbs such as flax, fenugreek, psyllium, and lemon grass are reported to significantly lower blood cholesterol levels in humans.

However, you must exercise caution in using herbal products, since the difference between a plant having a medicinal effect and the same plant acting as a poison is often only one of dosage.

For several years the National Cancer Institute has funded the research for the cancer-prevention ingredients of many plant foods, including different types of spices and herbs such as garlic and onions, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, flax, tarragon, oregano, licorice, celery seed, and a number of mints. These herbs and spices contain a variety of terpenoids, flavonoids, carotenoids, sulfur compounds, and a variety of other potent antioxidants.

These protective plant substances block the activity of cancer-causing substances and also help lower the risk of heart disease, by blocking the production of oxidized cholesterol.


Not every type of spices and herbs are beneficial for you, and some even are dangerous health hazards. An escalated danger of stomach cancer has been reported among Mexicans who normally consume large quantities of chili pepper compared with those who consume little, if any, chili pepper. Chili, or red pepper, contains large quantities of an irritating substance, capsaicin.

Also, cloves contain eugenol, a sharp irritating compound that can damage the intestinal lining. Furthermore, black pepper contains a number of compounds suspected of being cancer causing.

Those who regularly use herbal teas as an alternative to caffeinated beverages must exercise real caution, since the safety of many of the ingredients of the teas has not been adequately tested.

By carefully selecting and discreetly using safe herbal products, we can add pleasant and exotic flavors to our food as well as obtain some medicinal benefit.

Herbal Supplements

They come in capsules, tablets, liquids and powers. Their names are often strange and difficult to pronounce. They promise to heal or enhance your health - naturally.

And they're selling like hot cakes.

They're herbal supplements. People spend millions a year on herbal remedies sold in health food stores. Yet there's scanty proof that the supplements can actually help you. Worse, scientists know little about the ingredients in some products.

Shred of Truth Isn't Proof

The popularity of herbs usually originates from testimonials or inflated information of scientific evidence. Echinacea, a part of the daisy family, is recommended as a cure for flu or cold. Echinacea is comprised of substances that have the ability of enhancing the immune system to combat infection. Yet scientists haven't determined its practical usefulness. And it hasn't been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Studies show ginkgo biloba extract can stimulate blood flow in the brains of older adults. In Germany, the herb is sold as a prescription drug. But its complete chemical makeup hasn't been analyzed, and it hasn't been approved as a drug in the United States.

It's possible a number of herbs enhance particular conditions. Many pharmaceuticals today started from plants. Digitalis, taken to help cure congestive heart failure, started from the leaves of the foxglove plant. Taxol, a drug originally from the yew tree, is a promising medication for breast and ovarian cancer.

Yet what separates these plant-derived drugs from herbal supplements is careful scientific study. Many herbs are sold in drug-like formulas and potencies without having been evaluated for safety and effectiveness, which is required by the drug-approval process.

Known Hazards

Lack of regulation doesn't mean all herbs are dangerous. Yet taking them is risky. Here are several supplements to avoid because they can have serious side effects:

  • Comfrey, coltsfoot and borage. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are toxic ingredients of these herbs may be the originator of liver disease.
  • Chaparral. Five cases of liver disease (acute toxic hepatitis) have been linked to the use of this medicinal herb. Although word of mouth touts chaparral as a cure for cancer, no evidence supports the claim. FDA also has no evidence that chaparral slows aging, “cleanses” the blood or helps treat skin problems.
  • Ma huang. You will find this herb mainly in “weight loss” teas. Not only is it ineffective for helping you lose weight, but Ma huang acts on the central nervous system and can cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure. It's particularly unsafe if you have heart disease, diabetes or thyroid disease.
  • Germanium . This substance does not contain benefits of a food or nutrient, but unfortunately it is sold to boost overall health. Promoters also declare germanium eradicates heavy metal toxicity. Long term use of this supplement may lead to kidney damage and death.
  • Yohimbe. Used to enhance sexual performance, it generally lacks practical use due to its serious side effects, including tremors, anxiety, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate.

A Game of Russian Roulette

When you take an herbal supplement, you do so at your own risk. At a minimum, use these precautions:

  • Don't use herbal remedies for serious illnesses like heart disease, cancer or arthritis.
  • Tell your doctor about all supplements you take, to avoid interactions with other medications.
  • Do not administer herbs or other “dietary supplements” to children.

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