Herbal Supplements: Friend or Foe?

Recently we’ve seen some pretty alarming headlines in the news regarding herbal supplements suggesting that there’s little scientific evidence to support their claimed health benefits.  Even more alarming, in some cases, dietary supplements may prove detrimental to our health.  The main issues stem from some basic inaccurate assumptions:
  • The assumption that natural is safer – As supplements do not require clinical testing and face no FDA regulations, quality and safety are not monitored.  Many products on the market have been found to contain even less-controlled ingredients from overseas, do not contain the advertised amounts of plant-based products, and can be contaminated with potentially toxic or harmful contents and more.  Some online retailers are the worst culprits, promising these natural herbs can cure everything from hot flashes and dental plaque to cancer and hepatitis C.
  • The assumption that supplements are not drugs – Just because these products are plant-based doesn’t mean they can’t be dangerous when dispensed in higher doses than found in a typical balanced diet.  Supplements can interact with prescription medications, cause unintended side effects and pose new health risks.
  • The assumption that if I feel better, the herbs are working – Never discount the possibility of a placebo effect.  Dr. Fredrick Wigley, Associate Director at the Division of Rheumatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a member of the Raynaud’s Association Medical Advisory Board, tells us that a placebo effect noted in clinical trials has been found responsible for as much as a 40 percent improvement in patients.  We just convince ourselves that we feel better, and sometimes that’s enough!
As a result of these disturbing findings, the Federal government is getting marginally more involved in studying the safety and effectiveness of these herbs, but researchers have a long way to go in understanding how these plant substances work with the body and interact with other drugs.  Study is complicated because – since many of these nutrients are found in everyday foods – isolating the impact of vitamins and supplements can be easily skewed.  Until more definitive information is known and signed off by the medical community, the best advice may be to just stick to a well-balanced diet!

For more information on the subject, here are some recent articles published by the Wall Street Journal:

Editor’s Note:  To date, The body of knowledge on nutritional strategies to help Raynaud’s sufferers is limited.   We advocate the need for better quality, more consistent study methodologies on nutritional supplements and dietary options that could help Raynaud’s patients better control their attack frequency and severity. Please speak with your doctor before trying any specific dietary approaches.