What's In That Herbal Supplement Anyway?Jan 16, 2014
American women spend billions of dollars a year on unproven herbal supplements to treat everything from the common cold to tummy upsets, to depression. Do you know what’s really in them? A number of recent studies have suggested a lot of these products aren’t what they say they are. Dr. Kirtly Jones talks about herbal supplements, why they aren’t FDA approved, and why they might be dangerous.
Dr. Jones: So what is in your herbal supplements from the supplement store or online? The real thing, whatever that might be, or some other weed, or rice meal, or mouse poop? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Heath Care. Today on The Scope we are talking about herbal supplements. Beware.
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Dr. Jones: American women spend billion of dollars a year on unproven herbal supplements to treat everything from the common cold, to tummy upsets, to depression. Who knows what is in these pills, liquids, or ointments? Somebody does, but you don't and I don't and the FDA doesn't. A recent DNA study of 44 herbal supplements found that one-third had none-none-of the labeled supplement in it, and many were adulterated with compounds not on the label.
So there are about 29,000 herbal products and supplements sold throughout North America with Americans spending about $5 billion a year. A number of recent studies have suggested that a lot of these products are not what they say they are. Several years ago, a scientific look into an online, supposedly herbal product to improve sexual experience and found it to be adulterated with a chemical like the medicine in Viagra, but it was not approved for use in humans.
The recent study used a very sophisticated, CSI era, DNA bar coding to find out if there was any DNA of the product claimed actually in the supplement. They purchased 44 supplements, random different brands from different stores and outlets in Canada and the US. One-third of the supplements had none-rnone-the product in it. Many were adulterated with plants other that what was on the bottle, as well as ground rice, soybean, wheat, and ground walnut shells, which could be a problem for people with nut allergies.
Another study in the US found the same concern about herbal teas. The FDA requires that companies test the supplements that they sell, but it operates on the honor code, and supplements bought on the Internet, especially supplements tested from China, have chemicals used in prescription drugs added. One study of black cohosh, used for menopausal symptoms, found that 25% of the bottles bought had no black cohosh, but an ornamental plant from China.
So, what's a girl to do? Herbal supplements are meant to provide some substance that's missing from our ordinary diet, or some substance that's reported to have medicinal properties. Most of these substances, like echinacea for colds and black cohosh for hot flashes, work no better than placebo in carefully randomized studies. If they worked, the compound would have been isolated, purified, and marketed. Like aspirin, which was originally found in willow bark. So, look for the USP seal of approval or consumer lab seal of approval on your supplements. These are independent labs that at least look to see if what is in there is supposed to be in there. Or, the recommendation from the food guru Michael Pollan is, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Exercise regularly, get a moderate dose of sun every day, and count your blessings. All of which have been proven to improve health and mood.
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