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UC HEALTH LINE: What You Should Know Before Taking Herbal Supplements

With the New Year comes resolutions to get healthy or maintain wellness.

Aside from exercise regimens and counting calories, some people are turning to natural or herbal remedies and supplements to decrease appetites, cleanse the system or even to keep sickness at bay, as it is cold and flu season. 

Lauren Ashbrook, MD, UC Health physician and assistant professor in general internal medicine at the UC College of Medicine, says that if you’re going to try a natural remedy, you should know risks associated with them and have a discussion with your physician.

"There is a lack of evidence to support the use of many natural supplements,” she says. "These remedies do not go through U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, meaning that ingredients in each pill or drop are not rigidly tested or regulated.”

She says certain studies on purified components of natural remedies show positive effects, but actually obtaining the correct ingredient in the effective dose is challenging because of lack of regulations.

"One example is red yeast rice, which is an ancient Chinese herbal supplement; the active component is lovastatin, which lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood,” she says. "However, the amount of that chemical varies between manufacturers, and you could get a dose that could either be unhealthy to your system or ineffective to treat your elevated cholesterol.

"In addition, the lovastatin can interact with other medications, making them less effective or enhancing them to an unhealthy degree. In certain cases, it can increase the risk of muscle breakdown and can affect liver enzymes, so it’s important to know the risks and to let your doctor know you are using a supplement.”

She adds that many other remedies fall into this category as well.

"For the most part, herbal supplements are likely safe to use, but it’s important to be informed about the potential risks and understand the evidence-based benefits,” Ashbrook says. "The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both have information for patients on alternative medicine choices, active ingredients in certain remedies and research on benefits versus non-benefit of a certain therapies.

"Most importantly, be sure to have a conversation with your doctor about remedies you are using, especially if you are taking other traditional medications, to avoid potentially serious side effects. And in all cases, if you are taking a medication, and you experience a strange side effect, discontinue use until your speak to your physician.”

Patient Info:

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Ashbrook or another UC Health primary care physician, call 513-475-7880.

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