The Potential Benefits of Popular Herbal Supplements

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Explore the potential benefits of popular herbal supplements and discover possible risks. Learn more about specific herbs and their usage, and how they measure up to FDA-regulated medications. Updated: 10/06/2021

Herbal Supplements

For thousands of years, people have been using herbs to prevent, treat or cure disease. There are even some herbs that have been used to create some very important Western medicines.

The problem is that many herbal supplements nowadays on the market have very little to no proof of efficacy - nor evidence of appropriate long-term safety - and therefore, must be used with caution. In some cases, at the very least, you're wasting money on nothing useful, and other times, you're putting yourself into a potentially life-threatening situation.

Examples of Herbs and Their Effects

From the standpoint of this lesson, an herb is part of or all of a plant that is used for its potential therapeutic value. We'll get into the discussion of why I said 'potential' therapeutic value in the last section of this lesson. But first, I'd like to mention some well-known herbs and their potentially beneficial effects on the body.

  • St. John's wort is an herb that is likely effective for mild to moderate depression.
  • Echinacea is an herb that might reduce the symptoms of the common cold.
  • Ginkgo is a plant that is possibly effective for improved memory and the improvement of symptoms associated with Alzheimer's and dementia.

There's of course a lot more! Flaxseed has been shown to potentially have cholesterol-lowering effects. Aloe has been used to treat psoriasis. Cranberry juice has research that backs up the claim that it may help prevent urinary tract infections in women. Garlic is famously used to reduce high blood pressure or even the risk of cancer.

Genital warts can be treated with a specific extract from green tea. Sufferers of seasonal allergies may want to look into whether taking milk thistle under the direction of their doctors can help alleviate their symptoms. Those of you who have trouble sleeping at night might derive some benefit from valerian root.

The list goes on and on. And I've only mentioned the things that these plants, their parts, or products might help out in - their major effects. There's a ton of stuff that has been attributed to these herbs for which literally no research exists to back up those claims.

This brings me to a very important discussion about the effects, or purported effects, of herbal supplements and why many times these claims don't pan out.

Risks and Efficacy

Modern medicines, or colloquially speaking, Western medicines, undergo an extremely strict process of testing prior to being put out on the market for use. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a lot of objective and scientific testing that shows what a drug does, how safe it is, and so forth.

While the FDA does regulate herbal supplements, it does not do so under the strict guidelines required for a modern drug. Herbal supplements are treated as dietary supplements. This means that herbal supplements sometimes use very poor evidence to make a health claim. So long as they say the FDA hasn't evaluated this claim, it's considered good enough, and it's placed on a store shelf. That's the short story, anyhow.

As I mentioned in my introduction, some modern medicines have been derived directly from plants. In fact, we suspect there are a lot of extremely important compounds located in plants in rainforests that can help save human lives. Therefore, there's a very real need to protect our environment from destruction. One very famous example of a medicine derived directly from a plant is digoxin, which is a drug isolated from the plant called foxglove and used to treat heart arrhythmias.

Note how I said it was 'isolated' from the plant. This means the active ingredient necessary for our health was purified or filtered away from all of the other unnecessary and potentially dangerous ingredients in the plant itself. By purifying the ingredient we need from the plant, we are then able to objectively figure out to the best of our ability what that ingredient does to our body, such as how safe it is, which side effects to look out for, and how much of the important ingredient is present in a certain weight, pill, or capsule of the product.

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