A lot of people are interested in herbal medicine but have been scared off by reports of contamination and other quality problems with Chinese herbs. Others spend their money on American-made dietary supplements based on the advertising hype, without knowing if they are getting what they are paying for. Generally speaking, American supplements come under fairly stringent manufacturing requirements – at the least, they shouldn’t have any more rat parts than your hot dogs do. A bigger concern is if they contain what you are led to believe.
Quality and safety are two interconnected but different issues. You can have a great herbal formula, made of the best components and completely free of contaminants; if it is inappropriate for your condition or your constitution, it is still not safe. Here are some tips for finding quality products, and information on some safety issues you may not have considered.
Let’s start with a look at the label. The ingredients list should be very specific. Look for details like these:
You should also be able to get some information on quality testing - perhaps on the manufacturer’s web site. The best manufacturers test every lot of their finished products (preferably using independent assays). A big problem with supplements, including herbs, is that the finished products simply don’t contain the amounts and proportions of ingredients that they should.
For Chinese herbs, the new Chinese Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standard is pretty good. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) certification is considered one of the most stringent in the world: their guidelines for dietary and herbal supplements are the same as for their pharmaceuticals.
Many of the scare stories in the press are about heavy metals and/or pharmaceuticals being found in herbal supplements. Some heavy metals are picked up from the soil, and some were purposely used in traditional formulas. In
Note that GMP certification relates to manufacturing standards rather than ingredients. With herbs, proper identification of raw materials is critical. Testing of plant constituents is important, as these vary depending where and how the plants are grown, harvested, etc. Good companies use chemical analyses including TLC (thin layer chromatography) and HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) to confirm identification, ensure potency and test for levels of active constituents.
If the product is well made, is it safe for me?
Another key point: “natural” does not automatically mean “safe” (think of hemlock, lead, arsenic, etc.) TCM medicinals include a number of potent substances that most definitely are not safe when used inappropriately. A good example is the misuse of ephedra (da huang) as a weight-loss aid. In TCM, its primary application is for certain respiratory problems, and it is noted to be unsafe for those with heart problems and other conditions. It’s a useful herb when properly used. It can be deadly when abused.
The dietary supplement industry is big business, and products can be rushed out with the flimsiest of evidence that they are beneficial. Consumers are the primary testers for side-effects. And yes, herbs - like any other substance that changes the way your body functions - can have side effects.
A more common problem is duplicating the actions of a pharmaceutical prescription with an herbal formula or supplement. For example, many herbs, supplements (and over the counter drugs) can affect the blood-thinning actions of warfarin (coumadin).
This is a rapidly growing area of study. Books on the subject are likely to be dated. Read the package inserts for any pharmaceuticals you take. You can also check the Healthnotes resource, which is licensed to numerous online companies and in-store kiosks. One publicly available access point is at the Pure Encapsulations web site, in their Health Library section: www.purecaps.com/ClinicalEssentials_index.asp
Some General Precautions
In the end, you shouldn’t be afraid to access the benefits available to you from dietary supplements and herbals. There are a lot of great products available to enhance the nutrition you get from your food, and some excellent alternatives to pharmaceutical therapies for illness. Armed with the tips from this article, you will be better prepared to make good choices.