Nature's medicine

Herbal supplements have been used for centuries to promote health, but information is the key to proper use.

Sea Buckthorn oil, Guarana, Gingko biloba, valerian root. Sound like a foreign language? They are actually popular herbal supplements, many used since ancient times to improve energy, mental alertness, sleep patterns and even skin.

Herbal supplements, like exercise and healthy eating, can increase vitality and health, and more people swear by these homeopathic cures every year.

More than 115 million adults in the United States purchase supplements periodically, and more than 45 million adults purchase supplements regularly, making vitamins, herbal and dietary supplements a $10 billion industry.

But what is the difference between an herbal supplement and a simple multivitamin?

Multivitamins provide a daily intake of essential vitamins you may not be getting in your diet – especially if you typically bypass the salad bar for the chicken fried steak. For example, you could take a multivitamin to get Vitamin A and C, or you could eat eight baby carrots (they provide 172 percent of Vitamin A for the day) and one orange (it contains 67 percent of the recommended intake of Vitamin C for men and 86 percent for women).

Herbal supplements, on the other hand, contain plant ingredients not normally found in meat, fruits and vegetables. For example, Ginkgo biloba is an herb from the Ginkgo tree. You wouldn’t take a bite out of a Ginkgo tree, but Ginkgo biloba extract is a popular herb, touted for memory benefits and mental alertness. Taken over time, some experts contend that Ginkgo biloba may actually prevent memory loss and increase concentration and focus.

But while some view herbal supplements as a fountain of youth, alternative medicines are controversial. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them as drugs, so several plant and mineral ingredients may be combined into one bottle. Though a consumer buys a specific herb, such as Echinacea, he or she could be buying a variety of ingredients in addition to the Echinacea.

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Also, just because a supplement is derived from nature, it’s not necessarily safe. Herbal supplements such as kava and comfrey have been linked to liver damage, and the FDA banned supplements containing ephedra, or mua huang, in April 2004 after determining that the drug was dangerous. Baltimore Orioles’ pitcher Steve Bechler died from a heatstroke complicated by ephedra, and 16,000 users complained of heart palpitations, tremors and insomnia. Ephedra was the main ingredient in appetite suppressants and diet pills, but the FDA did not find sufficient evidence that ephedra aided weight loss.

Ephedra is an extreme case of the danger of herbal supplements, but consumers should be aware of the risks associated with unknown dietary aids.

Choosing your supplement
Many claims about herbal supplements have not been proven, and consumers should research a product and company thoroughly before deciding what to purchase.

First, decide what desired effect you are hoping to achieve. Whether you want more energy, an immune system boost or regulated sleep patterns, you have to choose the right supplement. Some herbs claim to provide many different benefits, but targeting your health need with a specific supplement is a better idea.

Some herbal supplements can interact with medications, so it’s important to consult your doctor first, and if you are already using herbal supplements, always tell your doctor which ones you are using.

Also, make sure you are buying your herbal supplements from a well-known company with a good reputation. Buying Granny’s Magic Tincture out of someone’s basement is not a good idea under any circumstances. Stick to brand names sold in health and organic food stores. You could begin your education at Nature’s Sunshine, a health store specializing in herbs, vitamins and nutritional supplements, at this site.

Always combine dietary supplements with a healthy diet and exercise plan for maximum health benefits.

Popular Herbal Supplements to Try:
Valerian Root

  • Known for its calming effects, including cramp and muscle ache reduction.
  • It is also a natural sleeping aid and can soothe you to sleep if taken an hour before bedtime.

Golden Salve

  • Mothers swear by this topical ointment for curing burns, scrapes and cuts. It has an earthy, distinct aroma and can be applied anywhere on the body or under a Band-Aid. It works much like Neosporin.

Black Walnut Extract

  • A topical and oral tincture to treat athlete’s foot, eczema, rashes and other minor skin infections. Mix 30 to 90 drops in a soft drink several times a day or as directed. Can also be applied directly to the skin.
  • Dark in color and can be washed off with water.

Catnip and Fennel

  • This herbal combination is used to relieve constipation and gas and promote a healthy digestive system. It is often administered to babies with colic.

—Rachel Telehany

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