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Monday, April 9, 2012

Using Herbs and Supplements Safely

Natural medicine is thought to be a safe and gentle alternative to modern medicine. However, even though most herbal remedies are safe and have no known side effects, there are some herbs and supplements that can be dangerous, especially when used in combination with certain prescription and over-the-counter medications or by people with certain health conditions.

Always consult an herbalist or physician if you're undergoing medical treatment or taking medication, are pregnant or considering administering herbal remedies to children. Don't exceed the recommended dosage or the maximum period of time recommended for usage. Look for any new symptoms, worsening of existing symptoms or signs of toxicity and contact your herbalist or physician immediately.

Keep in mind that while herbal medicine has been in use for thousands of years, the Federal Drug Administration has not approved the use of herbs to treat disease or illness. Inform your physician and your pharmacist about what herbs you're taking to help prevent situations where dangerous interactions may occur.


Common Herbs to Use with Caution

Used topically, aloe vera soothes sunburned skin and aids the healing of scrapes and cuts. Taken orally, it may have strong laxative effects in some individuals.

Borage, particularly the oil derived from its seeds, is used to treat joint pain and swelling, respiratory issues and some symptoms of menopause. The oil, however, contains chemicals that can cause liver damage. Borage should not be used by women who are pregnant.

Broom, used to hemorrhoids and other venous conditions, helps strengthen blood vessel walls but also constrict them tightly enough to cause irregular heartbeat in some individuals and uterine contractions in women.

Comfrey, also referred to as knitbone, is often used to treat insect bites and other mild skin conditions where the skin remains unbroken, as well as the support the body in cell regeneration, particularly bone cells. Limit use to topical application. When taken orally, comfrey may result in liver damage.

Juniper is used to treat gout (it helps rid the body of excess uric acid), warts, acne, upset stomachs and urinary tract and kidney ailments. Taken in large doses, juniper can have adverse effects on the kidneys.
Other side effects include gastrointestinal upset, blood in the urine, and heart palpitations and uterine spasms. Juniper oil should not be applied to open wounds.

Pennyroyal has been used for centuries to treat digestive disorders, liver and gallbladder ailments, colds and to induce the onset of menstruation. It's also an effective insect repellant, however, its potential side effects are serious enough-kidney and liver damage-that its use is generally not recommended in either topical or oral form.

Dangerous Drug Interactions


Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. Kava Kava is a mild sedative that should not be taken with anti-anxiety medications like alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium), flurazepam (Dalmane), halazapam (Paxipam), lorazepam (Ativan) and temazepam (Restoril). Reports of coma have associated with using kava kava in combination with these drugs. Other herbs such as gingko, kava-kava and valerian may also affect these and other drugs used to promote sleep contained in night-time pain relievers.

Valerian root is another herbal sedative and may also interact negatively with these drugs or when taken in combination with kava kava.

Blood thinners. Gingko interferes with the blood's ability to clot and should not be taken with anti-coagulant medications like Coumadin. Other herbs that should not be taken with blood thinners , including daily use of aspirin are cayenne, chamomile, dong quai, echinacea, feverfew, garlic, hawthorn, horse chestnut, juniper and licorice.

Heart medications and diuretics. Licorice, sometimes used to treat stomach ulcers and upper respiratory ailments, has been shown to interfere with certain heart medications digoxin (Lanoxin, Cardoxin, Digitek, Lanoxicaps) prescribed to help strengthen and regulate the heart beat. Licorice affects the body's hormone levels, causing electrolyte imbalances that result in irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and fluid retention. For this reason, people taking diuretics like furosemide (Lasix) for edema related to congestive heart failure and liver and kidney diseases should also avoid using licorice.

Ma Huang, more commonly known as ephedra, is a stimulant and appetite suppressant. Serious side effects include heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeat and sudden death. The FDA recommends that ma huang not be used by anyone. Ephedra is not recommended for anyone who has heart disease or angina, an irregular heartbeat, vascular or pulmonary disease, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, urinary or prostate problems, sleep or eating disorders, glaucoma, kidney or liver disease, anxiety, depression, biopolar disorder or those who experience seizures or psychotic episodes or taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).


Dangers Associated with St. John's Wort

In February of 2000, the FDA published a public health advisory detailing the potential drug interactions associated with the use of St. John's Wort. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study revealed that this herb, which proved effective in treating mild to moderate cases of depression, also induced a critical metabolic pathway called cytochrome P450 used by many prescription drugs to treat heart disease, depression and some cancers as well as prevent organ transplant rejection.

This pathway is also used by oral contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. The FDA recommended that health care professionals alter patients to the potential for decreased effectiveness of these drugs when used in combination with St. John's Wort.

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