June 11, 2024

As physicians people often ask us about herbal supplements and whether or not they are useful for certain problems. As with many questions the answer is never simple. So yes… and no. 

In theory there are potential benefits to certain herbal supplements.  For example, Valerian root is a supplement which has been shown to be helpful for some people in treating insomnia (along with other key vitamins such as magnesium and melatonin, a hormone). Other herbal products such as Red Clover extract have been found to be useful with menopausal symptoms like hot flashes by acting as almost a form of estrogen (without the potential downsides of actual hormone replacement).

However, there are many commonly touted herbal supplements that have not been shown to have great benefits, such as echinacea, that is touted for its supposed immune boosting properties. There is limited data to support the use of echinacea in the common cold or other conditions. It turns out that taking the right vitamins through a custom daily multivitamin may be more effective in preventing illness. When a cold comes on, taking some extra Vitamin C, D and zinc (this can be found in our Immune Blast Situational Supplement) can be helpful in shortening the length of the illness.

Other herbal products such as green tea extract are commonly touted for weight loss. However, the data is unclear to support any  benefits of green tea beyond its high caffeine content (which tends to speed up heart rate and falsely boost metabolism). The challenge with this particular herbal supplement, and in fact most herbal supplements, is that when you purchase a product it often contains other ingredients that may be causing the intended effect. For example, many of these green tea products that claim to boost energy or help with weight loss, do so because they contain certain stimulants. These stimulant ingredients may not be legal and may not be safe and are often not listed on the label. (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2706496)

Packaged Facts Outlines Key Trends Driving Nutritional Supplement ...

It turns out that many herbal products do not always contain the exact ingredients listed on the label. This is both disturbing  and it begs the question, “If they don’t contain what the label says they do, then what do they contain?” The answer is they often contain potentially illicit and dangerous ingredients. Several studies have proven this. As a result numerous lawsuits have been filed against big box retailers such as GNC, for selling these products. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/oregon-sues-gnc-alleging-supplements-contained-illegal-ingredients-1445543143)  The moral of the story not to trust herbal supplement products, even those sold at reputable retailers. These products are not necessarily regulated and safe.

The lack of safety in these products is born out in the large number of ER visits they generate. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed 23,000 ER visits annually to supplement toxicity (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/10/14/more-than-23000-people-wind-up-in-the-er-each-year-due-to-dietary-supplements/). Many of these visits are attributed to herbal products, particularly those that claim to aid in weight loss and energy.

When buying vitamins and supplements safety should be of paramount concern. It is important to buy quality brands that bear a seal of verification such as USP or GMP certification. Be especially careful that each product you purchase bears the seal, as sometimes a brand can carry certain products in a line with certification and others without. Herbal supplements can play a role in health, but safe and useful sources for them are difficult to find. 

The best way to find the right vitamins and supplements for your needs is to take a personalized vitamin quiz and get a custom vitamin tailored to your needs. We all have different needs based on our diets, lifestyle and health concerns. A personalized and doctor supervised approach is the way to go!