Are Herbal Supplements Safe?
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
“I have been diagnosed with cancer and have heard that I should take herbal supplements. Are they safe?”
There are many published Western and Eastern medical studies regarding the potential benefits of select vitamins, spices, herbs and natural nutrients in the fight against certain diseases. I do not dispute this. However, there is still much unknown. As a Pharmacist, the ever-growing market for ungoverned herbal vitamins and so-called super supplements causes me great concern, as they are largely unregulated. While it’s true that general manufacturing guidelines do exist, supplement sellers can make claims without showing proof of safety or effectiveness. On one hand, the FDA regulates and monitors all prescription and OTC medications, whereas the same monitoring does not exist in the $125 billion+ vitamin & supplement industry.
OTC and Prescription Medications: As a pharmacist, I can trust that a tablet of Tylenol Extra Strength contains 500mg of Tylenol (acetaminophen) and no other active ingredients. I can equally trust that any prescription medication (branded or generic) contains what the label states, accordingly as specified. The FDA strictly regulates all over-the-counter and prescription medications, checks manufacturing practices and standards, and can immediately terminate production upon any concerns.
Healthcare professionals also report concerns to the FDA via MEDWATCH, which is an additional safety net in the system. https://www.fda.gov/safety/medwatch-fda-safety-information-and-adverse-event-reporting-program.
Herbal Supplements: Unfortunately, we really have no idea what is in an herbal supplement because there are no monitored governance standards to actually verify what is in each tablet or capsule, or the safety of its use or claims. The fact is that they are considered to be more like foods than medications (somewhere in-between), wherein both may have basic manufacturing, cleanliness and quality standards, but supplement claims are not regulated like medications. Are there additives that interact with other medications, especially blood thinners or chemotherapy? What is the risk of compromising the effectiveness of proven medications? Thus, I caution you to be informed.
Importantly, please always consult with your oncologist, primary care physician or pharmacist before purchasing or taking any vitamins or herbal supplements. Here is a link I like for more information: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/herbal-supplements/art-20046714.