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Heavenly Herbs or Bad Weeds?

Over the past few years in my private practice as well as in the general public, there has developed an explosive surge in the use of herbal supplements (alternative medicines or homeopathic remedies, as they are also sometimes referred). In this era of "preventative health maintenance," people are more conscious about "taking charge" of one's personal health. This new revival of an age old phenomenon is considered partially responsible for this explosive resurgence, as well as the hopeful anticipation of avoiding known side effects associated with traditional medicine (over-the-counter and prescription).

Most Americans will agree that it is a privilege as well as a blessing to be in good health and have adequate health care coverage. In many countries this privilege does not exist. These countries come to rely on the vegetation in their environment to treat and to prevent illnesses. The people in these countries look to their "local leader" or "medicine doctor" to determine what type of would be best suited for their need. Just as all traditional medicines are not beneficial for everyone, so it is with alternative medicines. I urge you to know what you are taking and why.

In many instances, the use of complimentary medicine (traditional and alternative medicine) can work in concert and have an enhanced beneficial effect on the intended outcome. However, on the other side of the coin, serious consequences can occur with the unsupervised use of herbal supplements and combining herbal supplements and traditional medicine. With the judicious use of herbal supplements and traditional medicine, one may experience profound benefits or when used haphazardly, their use may result in serious, life-threatening consequences. It is important to inform your healthcare provider about any herbal supplement that you are taking, even if she or he does not ask. Better still, bring your supplements with you on your next appointment.

Often herbal supplements may contain more than one ingredient and will need to be evaluated individually. In this article, a few of the more common herbal supplements have been carefully researched in an attempt to provoke awareness of potential benefits and risks associated with some supplements.

Echinacea is one of the more popular herbal supplements on the market. In countries where it grows naturally, the fresh-pressed juice of Echinacea purpurea is used as complementary therapy for reoccurring respiratory and urinary tract infections. Echinacea is not intended for long-term use but instead for use at the first sign of a cold or of a urinary tract infection to lessen the severity and duration of symptoms. As you may suspect, Echinacea may stimulate the immune system. This is great, right? Not necessarily! If an individual with an autoimmune disorder such as Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, AIDS, or Tuberculosis takes Echinacea, it can possibly worsen their symptoms by stimulating the immune system to further attack the body.

Milk Thistle is believed to protect the liver from harmful effects of excessive use of alcohol and acetaminophen. Common herbal laxatives include Slippery Elm and Aloe Leaf. They are believed to be beneficial to individuals who suffer from chronic gastric disturbances, but they may also interfere with antibiotics and heart medications.

Dandelion has been known to be used for gastric disturbances to improve bile flow. Dandelion is also considered an herbal diuretic and has been used as an adjunct therapy in complementary medicine to lower blood pressure. Caution should be use when taking this herb to avoid electrolyte disturbance and hypotension

Hawthorn is used as adjunct therapy in the treatment of hypertension by acting therapeutically to relieve angina and irregular heartbeats. Hawthorn must be used with caution since it may increase the intensity level of other drugs. Ephedra and Licorice, on the other hand, will increase blood pressure. Fenugreek and Bitter Melon are two common herbs used in complimentary medicine to help lower blood sugar. Saw Palmetto is a very popular herbal supplement with males. It is used for the prevention and treatment of urinary problems associated with benign prostate enlargement. Stinging Nettle is believed to be helpful in increasing urine flow, as well as in the prevention and treatment of kidney stones.

There is yet to be discovered any herbal supplement that contains all of the benefits of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). However, Black Cohosh has shown to improve the symptoms of hot flashes and Valerian has been helpful addressing emotional irritability. Long term use of Valerian has been associated with sleep disturbance, headache, gastric disturbance, and cardiac problems.

Feverfew is mainly used with NSAIDS in complimentary medicine to treat migraines, bone and joint pain, cramps, allergies, and tinnitus. This herbal supplement should NOT be used with blood thinners because of the risk of increased bleeding.

St. John's Wart is one of the first herbal supplements that opened the door for the "herbal boom" in the U.S. It has been used in other countries for many decades. St. John's Wart is frequently used for the treatment of mild depression, skin wounds, and neuralgia- with generally few side effects when taken alone. Caution should be used when taking this herb with other drugs because of its effects on metabolism in the liver. Siberian Ginseng is believed to improve fatigue and vigor. It should not be used in the presence of increase blood pressure or heart murmurs, thereby worsening the medical condition.

The herbal supplement, Kava Kava, has been shown to be useful in treating anxiety, stress, and restlessness in some individuals. Take caution of this herbal supplement and other similar OTC (over the counter) supplements if taken in the presence of severe depression. Kava Kava and other similar OTC supplements may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and should not be taken with other anxiety or psychotropic drugs. THIS AND ALL HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN WITHOUT A PHYSICIAN'S SUPERVISION.

Ginkgo Biloba has been long demonstrated to improve concentration and memory defects by improving blood circulation to the brain in some individuals. It has also been useful in treating certain forms of vertigo and tinnitus. However, Ginkgo Biloba has the potential to interact with blood thinners and cause serious consequences.

I hope that this information has been helpful to you, as Knowledge is power. A certain quote from the Bible in Hosea 4:6 states that "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge...." Take charge of your health with knowledge and understanding!


Dr. Angelene Stewart

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