Some people like to take their herbal supplements as regularly as they take their prescribed medications. While this sounds like a good plan to maybe get “bonus” health benefits from each, more and more medical professionals are saying this may actually be a bad, even dangerous idea.
That’s because, generally, residents of Manchester and elsewhere considering herbal supplements may not have the details that would be useful to know about what they’re taking, especially those receiving end-of-life care.
The team at Above and Beyond Home Health Care and Hospice are happy to share the “why” and “why not” of the herbal vs. medication question with our clients since the question comes up often.
The short version is that most herbal supplements don’t have to disclose details about any ingredients or concentrations, or possible negative reactions to other supplements or prescriptions, no matter how large or small. But prescriptions are required to do so by law.
Some people think of supplements as the same thing as prescriptions, just more natural. This theory makes sense since many of today’s prescription medications have natural ingredients at their core, such as certain tree bark or flowers that have been processed with other ingredients into pills or tablets. St. John’s Wort is a common herbal supplement that many believe can treat a variety of ailments.
Many believe a supplement comes directly from that particular plant, while medication has been changed and refined until you don’t know what’s really in it.
But according to the American Cancer Society, the opposite is true.
Prescription medications have gone through extensive studies and testing to even be sold on the open market. This involves extensive work involving different groups of subjects and precise measurements of proper dosages. It includes a detailed examination of how they may react to other medications and any cautions a pharmacist or health care provider must make sure the patient is aware of.
This includes what some people think of as a laundry list of the most exotic side effects – likely something very uncommon that may have happened to 1 in 1 million people, but still must be legally stated to avoid liability.
Research and testing for prescriptions can take years, maybe even a decade.
In comparison, supplements have very few requirements in the U.S. since they are technically classified by the Food and Drug Administration as food and not medicine.
Johns Hopkins University says this means they can follow different standards in ingredients, labeling, and advertising than certified medical products.
For instance, companies that sell St. John’s Wort can say some people use it for a variety of health conditions such as better sleep or relaxation since this doesn’t count as a legitimate health claim. At the same time, these companies have to be careful in how they write this: they are barred from putting something false or unproven such as “St. John’s Wort can cure cancer.”
Part of why many health care providers are cautious about recommending patients take health supplements beyond basic vitamins is that there isn’t always accurate information on the amount of a certain mineral or herb, even if it says so on the label.
For instance, high levels of vitamins can affect the body in negative ways including nausea. They also may include other additives that aren’t specified on the label and cause other reactions especially if someone may be allergic or sensitive to certain ingredients.
Certain herbs also may react negatively to certain prescription medications, which could be dangerous when someone is dealing with a serious medical condition and the provider trying to have the right balance of certain ingredients in their treatment plan.
In some cases, some supplements have not been tested on certain age groups either and may not be recommended for people in certain age groups (children 10 and under or adults 65 and over. These age groups may metabolize items differently.
Even routine medications are known to clash with herbal supplements. For instance, blood thinners, blood pressure medicines, or even pain relievers like aspirin may interact badly with some herbs that affect blood pressure and blood flow.
For instance, St. John’s Wort, which is popular since many say it helps with a variety of ailments, is discouraged or even warned against for people taking antidepressants, anesthetics, immunosuppressants, and blood thinners. It also may reduce the effectiveness of other medications to treat other health conditions.
Caution is also advised by those taking St. John’s Wort by itself – too much can also harm the body.
Consulting with a health care provider and sharing everything you take is a good starting place to learn more about possible reactions or risks of taking health supplements since some people do rely on them as part of their daily regimen. He or she may even approve certain quantities or brands considered to be reliable, or allow them after a particular condition has been resolved.
There is also a good deal of information online, as long as it’s from neutral health sites (not from pharmaceutical or supplement sites.)
This month is also Herbal/Prescription Interaction Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn more about possible risks.