DrSugar Answers: Are Herbal Supplements Safe?

DrSugar is in the house and he's answering your health questions.

Dear DrSugar,
I've never taken herbal supplements, but I know many people do. I read about herbal supplements that reduce body fat, specifically belly fat, and possibly stress. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me? What do you think of herbal supplements in general? How does someone find quality herbal supplements . . . do you recommend any? I would love some advice on the matter.
— Herb Curious

This is an increasingly popular subject. Learn what the doctor has to say on the matter when you read more.

There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there surrounding the use and efficacy of herbal supplements. If you go to a local herbal supplement store, as I have recently, and read the bottle labels, you will see a wide variety of claims such as "stress reducer," "sexual enhancer," "ultra fat burner," and more. Most of these claims have not been validated by scientific studies and compared with a placebo. In some instances, product claims have been completely debunked. Vitamin E, for instance, has been proven to not reduce the risk of cancer despite its antioxidant content. Regarding supplements claiming to reduce belly fat and stress: if they really worked and were safe, who wouldn’t be taking them? Can you imagine a safe pill that took five pounds off the belly and relieved stress? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Some supplements and vitamins are effective and safe. Calcium supplements and vitamin D promote long-term bone health and can reduce risks of developing osteoporosis. Fish oil has been shown to have beneficial effects on lowering cholesterol. St. John's Wort has provided some benefits in treating mild depression, but not severe depression. A multivitamin can be beneficial for people who do not eat a well rounded diet due to dietary restrictions or other health problems. The list goes on.

The key is to be skeptical of herbal supplements claims and to research specific supplements from a reputable source. The Mayo Clinic's Drugs and Supplement site has an extensive review of supplements and highlights the supporting data (or lack of) for each use. Keep in mind that not all supplements are safe. Heavily advertised Hydroxycut, for example, was recently pulled from shelves for causing liver problems. Other "fat burners" were just stimulants and were pulled off the market for causing heart problems. Many herbal medicines can also interact with traditional medicines, so always talk to your doctor first if you’re already on other medicines.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.