As physicians we are often asked about herbal supplements and whether or not they are useful for certain ailments. As with many questions the answer is not simple. So yes… and no.
In theory there are benefits to certain herbal supplements. For example, Valerian root has been shown to be helpful in insomnia (along with other key vitamins such as magnesium and melatonin, a hormone). Herbal products such as Red Clover extract have been shown to be useful with menopausal symptoms by acting as almost a form of estrogen (without the potential harms).
However, there are many commonly touted herbals that have not been shown to have great benefits such as echinacea, that is touted for supposed immune boosting properties. There is limited data to support its use in the common cold or other ailments. It turns out that taking the right vitamins through a custom multivitamin may be more effective in preventing illness. When a cold comes on, taking some extra Vitamin C, D and zinc (this can be found in our Immune Blast) can be helpful in shortening the course of illness.
Other herbals such as green tea extract are commonly advertised for weight loss. However, the data is unclear to support its benefits beyond its high caffeine content which tends to speed up heart rate and falsely boost your metabolism. The challenge with this herbal supplement, and in fact most herbal supplements, is that when you purchase a product it often contains other ingredients that may be causing the intended effect. For example, many of these green tea containing products that claim to boost energy or help with weight loss, do so because they contain certain stimulants. These stimulants may not be legal and may not be safe. (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2706496(
It turns out that many herbal products do not contain the ingredients listed on the label. This is both disturbing in its own right and it begs the question, “If they don’t contain what the label says they do, what do they contain?” They contain potentially illicit and dangerous ingredients is the answer. Several studies have proven this. As a result numerous law suits have been undertaken against big box retailers such as GNC, for selling these products. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/oregon-sues-gnc-alleging-supplements-contained-illegal-ingredients-1445543143) The moral of the story is do not trust herbal supplement products, even those sold at reputable retailers. They are not necessarily regulated and safe.
We actually see the results of their lack of safety in the large number of ER visits generated by these products. A study publisihed n the New England Journal of Medicine attributed 23,000 ER visits annually to supplement toxicity (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/10/14/more-than-23000-people-wind-up-in-the-er-each-year-due-to-dietary-supplements/). Many of these are attributed to herbal products, especially those that claim to aid in weight loss and energy.
When buying supplements safety should be of paramount concern. It is essential to buy quality brands that bear a seal of verification such as USP or GMP certification. Be careful that each product you purchase bears the seal as sometimes a brand can carry certain products with it and others without. Herbal supplements can have a role in health, but are hard to find in safe and useful sources for them.
The best way to find the right vitamins and supplements for your needs is to take a vitamin survey and get a custom vitamin. We all have different needs based on our diets, lifestyle and health concerns. A personalized and doctor supervised approach is the best way to go!
Arielle Levitan M.D.
Co-founder Vous Vitamin LLC
Author of The Vitamin Solution:Two Doctors Clear the Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health