Nutrition Hotline

QUESTION: "Should I consider using herbal supplements? If so, which ones are best?"

ANSWER: We're a nation of pillpoppers. The nutritional supplement industry estimates that Americans spend more than $6 billion every year on vitaminand mineral-packed pills, powders, and tablets.

It's a testament to the allure of the quick-fix, given that little evidence exists to support most of the exaggerated health claims made for nutritional supplements. Now, many people are expanding their supplement habits to include herbs.

Herbs are plants used in small quantities for a variety of effects. Culinary herbs, for example, are plants used in small quantities for the flavor or aroma their leaves add to foods. Examples include mint, rosemary, thyme, and cilantro.

Medicinal herbs, on the other hand, are used for the health benefits some people believe the plants offer. Examples include black cohosh, echinacea, gingko, valerian, hoodia, feverfew, and dozens more.

Some herbs even pull doubleduty. Ginger, for instance, tastes good in soups, sauces, and entrées. It also has the power to relieve nausea and vomiting during pregnancy- safely-according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or NCCAM, a unit of the National Institutes of Health.

A list of common herbs, their uses, and potential side effects is available online at nccam.nih. gov/health/herbsataglance.htm.

By themselves, herbs are whole foods-a sprig or a few leaves of this or that. Taken as supplements that are concentrated and packaged in pill, capsule, or powder form, though, their active ingredients have more potential to have an effect.

Just as people take vitamin and mineral supplements because they think the pills provide protection against cancer or heart disease or that they boost the body's immune system, herbal supplements are often touted as having a wide range of health benefits as well.

In most cases, it's too early to tell if the claims are true. While the federal government is sponsoring research, the science is largely still evolving.

If you have an interest in herbal supplements, take precautions to use them safely. Federal guidelines regulating the marketing and sale of supplements are much less stringent than the standards applied to over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Be sure to tell your health care provider about any herbal supplements you are taking. It's important for many reasons:

  • Herbal supplements have the potential to interact with other medications. They may inhibit or enhance the effects of certain drugs.
  • Herbal supplements can affect your risk of bleeding during surgery. They can also change the way your body responds to anesthesia. If you plan to have surgery and are taking herbal supplements, definitely let your doctor know.
  • Available research may not apply in your case. Most of the research on herbal supplements has been conducted on adults, and very little has been conducted on pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.

Excellent online sources of reliable and up-to-date information about herbal supplements, in addition to NCCAM, include the following:

  • The Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health. Go to for fact sheets with information about the background and safety of specific herbal supplements.
  • MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Go to This site lets you search by the first letter of herbs and other supplements for detailed information compiled from a variety of authoritative sources.
  • The Herb Library at the People's Pharmacy. Go to index.php.