You might remember the television drama Providence. In one episode Joanie, who cared for her elderly father, gave him an herb called ginkgo biloba in order to improve his mental functioning. When he was diagnosed with ulcers, Joanie’s older sister Sidney, a doctor, found out Joanie had been giving their dad the nutritional supplement. Sidney angrily explained to Joanie that ginkgo biloba increases the risk of developing ulcers. Joanie had just assumed it was safe to use, since it was a natural herb available at the drug store without a prescription.
Many such nutritional supplements are perfectly harmless and many are indeed beneficial to our health. Some, though, can be harmful, especially if you have certain medical conditions or are on certain medications. Even if they are all-natural products, they can have side effects. If you have any medical problems or are on medication, it is always a good idea to talk with your doctor or pharmacist before trying any sort of nutritional supplement, even the stuff you can buy at the grocery store without a prescription.
Take ginkgo biloba, for instance. It increases the risk of bleeding and should not be used by anyone with a clotting disorder or anyone on a blood-thinning medication. It can cause digestive problems like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, increases the risk of ulcers, and can also cause headaches.
On a positive note, it has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and to improve memory and mental functioning. (It may also decrease cholesterol, treat skin disorders, and help treat infertility in males. These claims have not been proven yet.) It might be a useful supplement for you, but talk to your doctor first.
Echinacea is another commonly-used herb. It is often taken to treat colds, flu, and other such ailments. Some studies have found that, when combined with vitamin C and zinc lozenges, it is effective in treating colds. However, it can be dangerous if people with certain health condition use it.
You should not take echinacea if they have any type of auto-immune disease such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. People with diabetes or AIDS should not take echinacea. People with a tendency toward allergies toward other medications, herbs, and/or foods should use echinacea with care.
St. John’s Wort is another popular herbal remedy. It is used most often to treat depression. Some studies in Europe have shown it to be about as effective as anti-depressant drugs in treating mild depression and it is less likely to cause side effects than prescription medications.
If used in conjunction with anti-depressant drugs, however, St. John’s Wort can cause serious problems. It’s like taking an overdose of the medication. It also causes something called photosensitivity, which means you are more likely to get sunburn if you spend time outdoors in the sun. Other side effects may include anxiety, dizziness, fatigue, upset stomach, and sexual dysfunction.
Many herbs and other nutritional supplements have not been thoroughly researched, so no one knows for sure how they might interact with other medications or affect various health conditions. Alan DeCherney of Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California states, “The growing popularity of these herbal products means we must examine all their possible side effects.” Because there have been so few studies done to date, it is especially important to use nutritional supplements with care.
If you do have a negative reaction to a nutritional supplement, or if you suspect it is causing any problems, you should stop taking it immediately. Contact your doctor as soon as possible, or if the reaction is severe, go to the local emergency room.
Using nutritional supplements safely
To use nutritional supplements safely, make sure you tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs, vitamins, or other supplements they are taking. “Doctors should ask about it,” says Mike Andrews of Mansfield, Ohio. Many doctors are not familiar with herbs and other nutritional supplements. If it is important to you to use natural treatments like these, make it a point to find a doctor who is knowledgeable about them. Don’t be afraid to ask doctors what their stance is on natural supplements- some don’t believe they are ever safe or useful, while others believe that when used properly they can be very beneficial.
Pharmacists may not be very well informed about nutritional supplements, either. Ask how familiar they are with a particular supplement when asking their advice about whether or not it is safe for you to use.
Employees at health food stores can be helpful resources when selecting natural supplements. Since nutritional supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other agency, it can be hard to know the quality of what you’re buying. If you buy your supplements at a health food store, employees may be able to help you choose products from the most reliable companies. Remember, though, that they probably don’t have a medical background. Save questions about interactions with medications or health problems for a doctor or pharmacist.
You can do your own research, as well. The internet can be a valuable resource, but you need to find reliable information. Avoid websites that are trying to sell you a product. You can also do research at your local library or find books at most health food stores.
By the way, it’s not necessary to buy nutritional supplements at a health food store. Many will be carried at your local grocery store or pharmacy, and will probably cost less there. You can still use the health food store as a source of information about supplements, though.
Many nutritional supplements are safe to use and can be beneficial to your health. It’s just important to make sure you use them wisely and are fully informed.