Do Natural Supplements Work? 7 Things You Should Know About Taking Herbal Remedies

A recent investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office has found that when it comes to herbal supplements, what you’re getting often isn’t really what's on the label. The findings from the AG’s office are pretty terrifying: 79 percent of the supplements tested didn’t list all their ingredients, and only 4 percent of the supplements from Walmart actually had an ingredient list that was accurate. This, of course, isn’t just false advertising, but, as the Attorney General's office points out, “an unacceptable risk … especially to those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

So, what are some of those mystery ingredients, you ask? Well, in addition to rice and beans, the supplements were also found to contain pine, houseplant, asparagus, and wheat, among other things. (And you’d been wondering why your pee smelled like asparagus ever since you started taking your ginseng ― well, now you know.)

Herbal supplements aren’t regulated with the same veracity as other drugs by the FDA, so you need to be especially aware about the risks of taking them. So, if you’re like me and love your supplements, then here’s what you need to know.

1. They Don’t Have To Be Approved By The FDA

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Although manufacturers are supposed to keep the FDA abreast of what’s in their products, they're not held to the same standards as other drugs. What this means is that manufacturers don't need to get FDA approval before they put their supplements out there for consumer consumption. As the Mayo Clinic explains, "companies can claim that products address a nutrient deficiency, support health or are linked to body functions — if they have supporting research," and have a disclaimer on the packaging stating that these claims have not been verified by the FDA.

It's in good faith that manufacturers will hold up their end of the bargain and create an honest product that will produce the results it promises and is free from contaminants. It's only after this process, when the drugs are on the market, that the FDA becomes responsible for keeping an eye on the safety levels of these supplements. The FDA is there to monitor the safety of the final product and pounce when things go awry, not screen-test each and every bottle before they end up at your favorite store.

2. Just Because They’re ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Drugs

If something is strong enough to effect how your body and brain works, then it’s a drug — and drugs have risks. Some of those risks can be unpleasant side effects like nausea and fainting, while other side effects can be lethal, resulting in heart attacks or death.

Supplements can also, like any other drug, lead to mental and physical addiction. People who use supplements for weight loss can sometimes become mentally dependent on them, convincing themselves that without the supplement, they won't be able to reach their goal weight. In other cases, physical addiction can occur, as was the case with some bodybuilding supplements that contained synthetic steroids recently.

3. They Can Interact With Other Medications

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Natural drugs can negatively interact with other meds your doctor has prescribed. For example, although St. John's wort may seem like a great herbal alternative for depression, if you're taking birth control pills, you should know that St. John's wort can increase the breakdown of estrogen in the Pill, making it ineffective.

Those younger than 18 and older than 65 also shouldn't be taking supplements unless a doctor is consulted, and people who have any upcoming surgeries and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding also need to steer clear unless they get the OK from their physician. It’s extremely important to discuss with your doctor which herbs you’re considering so that you don’t end up doing more damage than good.

4. They Should Always Have Clear Labels

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Much like that ibuprofen you pop like a fiend when you have a hangover or your cramps are out of control, herbal supplements must also include specific details on their packaging. Along with the name of the supplement, they must show the name and address of the manufacturer, a list of the ingredients, both active and inactive, and serving size. If your herbal supplement doesn’t have these listed clearly on the bottle, then don’t buy it.

5. Some Types Of Supplements Are Better Than Others

Once again, St. John’s wort, despite being trumped as a natural alternative to antidepressants, can actually cause anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and stomach issues. The germanium herb, which is supposed to aid in glaucoma health and help with such serious illnesses like heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer can play a big role in kidney damage and even death.

According to Smithsonian, the best supplements to take are the ones that really work and have very minimal side effects: Vitamin D, Probiotics, Zinc, Niacin, and Garlic. Other good ones, according to Consumer Reports, are fish oil, cranberry, and calcium. These are safe bets that actually do what they're supposed to.

So, which brands of supplements should you look for? The FDA can't tell you, but Consumer Labs has found that Life Extension is the most preferable brand, and Nature Made and Puritan's Pride also seem to score well in customer satisfaction.

6. You Should Look For Ones Made In The U.S. Or Europe

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Although the U.S.’s regulation on supplements may leave much to be desired, Europe is all over that and regulates supplements just like any other drug. However, countries like China, India, and Mexico don’t have any regulation, and toxic substances have been found in supplements from these countries. It’s really important to know where your product comes from.

7. There Are Resources To Keep You Up-To-Date On Products

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Both the FDA and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine keep a list of what’s going on with supplements up for review — and of which ones have been reported to have issues. If you’re going to be a responsible supplement user, then this is a great resource to check in on from time to time.

Because you really don't want to be the last person to know that your favorite supplement is causing people to grow a hand out of the forehead. That's not a good look for anyone.

Images: in2herbs_uk/Flickr; WikiCommons; Stoic/Flickr; Getty