November 22, 2002
by Dr. Max Gomez
Millions of people take herbs vitamins and supplements to maintain health and to treat disease. Most believe that "natural" equals safe, a potentially dangerous assumption.
But finding out which ones might cause problems or interactions has been nearly impossible.
Getting a cold? There’s a decent chance you might reach for some Echinacea or vitamin C.
Worried about developing cancer? Lots of people drink green tea to ward off tumors or to calm them down.
Feeling a little down? There’s an herb that has become a common treatment for depression.
Herbs, vitamins and supplements have become a multibillion-dollar industry. People are taking them to try to maintain health and to treat disease. Recent studies have found that up to 80% of cancer patients take some sort of herb or vitamin supplement-- but consumer beware.
Barrie Cassileth, PhD, Integrative Medicine Specialist: "Herbs have active ingredients that can be very helpful, but they can also interfere, particularly with the liver's ability to process chemotherapy. And we also know that many herbs interfere with blood clotting, so if someone's going in for surgery, and taking herbs, they may, as has been the case in the past, bleed out and die."
Here's the rub-- herbs and supplements aren't required to be labeled or tested for safety and efficacy the way drugs are so neither consumers or doctors really know what's in them or how they might interact with medications.
The Sloan-Kettering website is a comprehensive compilation by the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, listing herbs, vitamins and supplements. It gives chemical content, what they do, adverse effects, possible complications and interactions with other drugs including links to scientific research papers.
It’s an invaluable resource for patients and doctors alike. Sloan Kettering is not anti-herbal. But they do want people to regard botanical products as dilute pharmaceuticals - that's really what they are. They are powerful, they have active ingredients. They can be helpful; by the same token they may be harmful.
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