Facts Versus Myths: Herbs and Vitamins
Everywhere we look, there seem to be advertisements for quick-fix solutions to every imaginable problem. Herbal remedies advertise weight loss and instant relief from long-term health problems. Vitamins purport to provide all the energy we need. Do these products really work? Are they worth the money? Are they safe?
Nothing beats a well balanced or healthful diet, lots of fluid (especially water), regular exercise, and proper rest for feeling and looking your best. Billions of dollars are spent each year for herbal and vitamin supplements that may not work and may not be safe for all individuals. Because these products are sold as food items rather than medications, they do not need to meet as many federal guidelines and regulations and therefore may not be examined as carefully for their therapeutic power, dosages, safety, or side effects.
Before you take a herb, vitamin, or other nutritional supplement, you should ask, “What is in this?” You also may want to consider, “What effect will this really have on me?” Listed here are some common myths and facts about herbal, vitamin, and nutritional supplements that may help you make informed decisions about using these products.
Myth: Herbs are natural and cannot hurt me.
Fact: Just because it is natural does not mean it is safe. Arsenic also is natural and it can kill you! Herbs are the functional ingredients in most medications. Taking too much of some herbs can cause serious problems like abnormal bleeding, headaches, and nerve damage. These problems can be temporary or permanent.
Myth: I should not tell my doctor if I am taking herbs because she might think that I am foolish.
Fact: Many doctors recognize the value, as well as the dangers of herbs, and it is very important that your doctor know about any herbs you are taking. Some herbs can cause medications to be ineffective. For example, St. John’s Wort may help with depression but may cause birth control pills not to work.
Myth: Herbal supplements are inspected.
Fact: The herbal/nutritional supplement industry is not regulated and these products are not rigorously inspected. And while many manufacturers may have quality standards, independent lab analyses of certain products have found roach legs, mouse hairs, grass clippings, pebbles, dirt, and other foreign objects. Some of these may have been added as fillers, but in other cases they may be the only components of the so-called herbal remedies.
Myth: If I take vitamins, I do not have to eat very much.
Fact: Vitamins do not work unless there is enough energy from food for them to work on. Vitamins without food in the body are like a car without gas. It will not go. We obtain energy from calories, which come from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Vitamins do not provide the body with energy (i.e., they do not contain calories); rather, vitamins help unleash the energy in foods.
Myth: Large doses of vitamin C supplements can help prevent or cure a cold.
Fact: One way to help prevent colds and infections is to get enough vitamin C each day by eating oranges, green and red peppers, broccoli, papaya, and strawberries. If you get sick, high intakes of these foods may help decrease the length of time that you are sick.
Some herbal remedies and nutritional supplements can be beneficial. One way to know what you are ingesting is to grow your own herbs. Herbs like alfalfa, dandelion, lavender, and sage grow easily in pots in a sunny spot in your garden or in a window box. Study a credible reference book for information on correct uses and amount of herbs to take. There also are appropriate uses for vitamin and mineral supplements, such as calcium supplements to help prevent or reduce the effects of osteoporosis.
Herbs are not necessarily harmless and some are toxic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prevents the marketing of herbs to be used for medicinal purposes if they have not been determined to be safe and effective for that use. If no therapeutic claims are made in the labeling or promotion, the products are considered foods and fall under the food provisions of the law.
If you are going to use herbal and vitamin supplements, be informed and discuss it with your physician or a registered dietitian. Share information with your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs that you are considering taking. Remember that herbs, vitamins and mineral supplements cannot substitute for a well-balanced diet, exercise, lots of fluid, and proper rest.