Health Watch -- Herbal Medicine

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

When it comes to herbal supplements, "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safe."

The government recently banned the dietary supplement ephedra, which had been linked to at least 150 deaths and dozens of heart attacks and strokes. The supplement was popular in weight-loss formulas. But doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say just because this one potentially dangerous supplement is off the shelves doesn't mean all herbal supplements are safe or effective.

Other herbal and supposedly natural products found in remedies and weight-loss formulas may be dangerous. For example, germander and bitter orange - all found in weight-loss products - have been associated with liver and kidney problems.

Dr. William Lee, a UT Southwestern liver specialist, says a number of herbal preparations have been implicated in liver damage, sometimes severe enough to require a liver transplant or cause death.

Because herbal preparations are sold as supplements rather than as drugs, they aren't subject to the kind of testing and quality control required for drugs. There is no proof that they're effective, there's been no testing for safety, and there are no standards as to how potent the preparations are.

Dr. Lee says most herbal preparations are harmless, whether or not they're effective. If you do take them, follow dosage instructions. If your condition becomes more serious or doesn't improve, see your doctor, and let your doctor know what supplements you're taking. Some herbal supplements can interfere with prescription drugs.


Aug. 2004

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