LSU AgCenter Nutritionist Advises Prudent Use of Herbal Supplements

Heli J. Roy  |  3/24/2005 4:21:23 AM

As baby boomers age, many reach for herbal supplements in hopes of staying young. Supplements can be harmful, cautions LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Heli Roy.

The herbal supplement industry is a $4.2 billion business. Yet, the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements finds no benefits from herbal supplements. In fact, taking herbal products containing herbs such as ephedra, kava, yohimbine, or ginkgo biloba have resulted in hospitalizations or deaths.

Ephedra use has been linked to strokes and heart attacks. Some individuals who had taken kava needed a liver transplant, and now the Food and Drug Administration wants to hear from physicians about adverse events among patients related to kava’s use.

Now that herbal supplements are showing up in foods and drinks, as well as the traditional tablets or capsules, it is much easier to overdose on an herb such as kava, according to Roy.

"When people think of an herb as a ‘natural’ product, they think it can’t be harmful," the LSU AgCenter nutritionist says, but warns, "Not only can herbal supplements be harmful, causing death and debilitating conditions, they can conflict with regular medications." She says ginkgo biloba can interfere with blood thinners, and St. John's wort can reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

"When individuals need emergency treatment, it is particularly important to let the doctor know about herbal supplement intake," Roy emphasizes.

Jonathan Moss, a medical doctor and scholar on herbal treatments and anesthesia, identifies eight of the most commonly used herbs that can affect surgical outcomes. They are valerian, echinacea, ephedra, ginkgo biloba, kava, garlic, ginseng and St. John’s wort. He suggests that a patient first disclose his or her use of herbal supplements to the physician and surgical team. He says it is important to check the ingredients of herbal supplement mixtures and even some vitamin supplements to see what herbs are included among the ingredients.

Dr. Moss suggests the patient then discontinue the use of certain supplements before surgery using the following guidelines: ephedra, ginkgo and kava – discontinue 24 to 36 hours before surgery; garlic, ginseng and St. John’s wort – stop one week prior to surgery; valerian and echinacea – start tapering off two weeks before surgery.

Roy says eating right and exercising are the best ways to stay healthy regardless of age. Doing age sensible, weight-bearing exercises helps keep muscles in condition and bones strong, while eating plenty of fruits and vegetables supplies antioxidants to deter aging from oxidative products. Eating less is also a way to stay healthier by keeping weight within normal range.

To find out more about herbal supplements, check out the National Center for Complimetary and Alternative Medicine for the most accurate information on their safety. 

The nutritionist also recommends contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office to learn more about proper use of herbal supplements. Also, visit the Food & Health section of the LSU AgCenter Web site.

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