Two recent studies of “natural” health supplements have found that they often contain ingredients that can potentially be harmful and sometimes don’t even contain any of the ingredient they are represented as having.
In a column for USA Today, Dr. Kevin Pho said Americans spend $5 billion a year on pills like echinacea, ginkgo biloba and black cohosh for various health ailments or to help improve their health. More than 29,000 herbal products are sold throughout North America, with about half of Americans using some form of alternative medicine. He pointed out that many people believe these products to be safe because they are promoted as natural or organic, and legally sold.
However, a study by the journal BMC Medicine, released last month, used DNA analysis to find that most of the 44 randomly selected herbal supplements they tested were “of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.”
One bottle of St. John’s wort, which is used to treat depression, contained pills that had no evidence of the advertised herb while another bottle of St. John’s wort the scientists studied had substituted another plant that is a known laxative.
The Food and Drug Administration recently tested 21 “all-natural” dietary supplements and found that nine of them contained unlabeled amphetamine-like compounds, which, if taken in unmonitored doses, can lead to elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate and heart attacks.
Last year, the FDA implicated the herbal industry in causing more than 50,000 adverse events annually.
Some pills use fillers like black walnut, which can severely affect people with nut allergies. Others contain unlabeled toxic ingredients and many, like garlic and ginkgo biloba, also interact with prescription drugs, which can alter the effect of blood thinners and cause life-threatening bleeding.
Pho said that many people incorrectly believe that these herbal supplements are regulated by the FDA like prescription medications, which leads them to believe that they are safe, when, in fact, many are not.