Herbal Supplements: Health or Hype?


You don’t have to be a health nut to notice how popular supplements have become in America. Current statistics show that dietary supplements are used by more than half the adult population in the United States.

Supplements can be divided into several categories. For example, “nutritionals” include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, hormones and metabolites. “Botanicals” include herbs and herbal preparations, while “functional foods” might include psyllium or other soluble fibers, fermented foods, probiotics and special phyto-nutrients like lycopene.

It is important for consumers to know that dietary supplements are not required to be proven safe before they are marketed. The regulatory body is the Food and Drug Association (FDA), but the FDA’s role with a dietary supplement product does not begin until after it is in the marketplace. At that point, the FDA has certain safety monitoring responsi- bilities, but it is still up to the supplement company to report any adverse events. Federal law does not require the seller to prove to the FDA’s satisfaction that a health claim made is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product. So, keep yourself informed. The FDA and the National Institutes of Health each has a helpful website that provides detailed information on dietary supplements.

A dietary supplement is any product that contains one or more dietary ingredients (vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids or other ingredients used to supplement the diet).

  •  Pill, Capsules, Tablets, Liquids
  • Not a Conventional Food or Sole Item in the Diet
  • Must Be Labeled as a “Dietary Supplement”

A drug is a product whose intended use is for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease.
A Supplement Facts Label is required to have the following.

  • Must Be Labeled A “Dietary Supplement”
  • Serving Size Must Be Given
  • Ingredients Listed
  • For Herbs, The Parts Of The Plant Used Are Listed
  • Standards Established For “High Potency” And “Antioxidant”
  • Guidelines For Structure/Function Claims

For immune support during cold and flu season, many people rely on echinacea. For women’s health, black cohosh has been advocated to diminish menopausal symptoms. For men’s health and prostate cancer prevention, saw palmet- to is often taken.


This herb is used to treat colds, flu and other infections. In the U.S., sales of echinacea are reported to equal about 10 percent of the dietary supplement market. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) research study results are mixed on whether it can prevent or treat upper respiratory infections such as the com- mon cold; they are continuing to fund further research at this time. In general, echinacea is thought to be possibly effective in treating the common cold but not effective at preventing it. There are very few known side effects; some individuals may be allergic if they are sensitive to the daisy family, which includes ragweed. Echinacea is not recommended for children due to frequency of skin rash seen versus placebo and the lack of positive results. For adults, it is considered safe if used in recommended doses for a maximum of eight weeks.

Black Cohosh

This herb was used in Native American medicine and also as a home remedy in 19th-century Amer- ica. It has been used historically for rheumatism (arthritis and muscle pain) but more recently for treating hot flash- es, night sweats, vaginal dryness and other menopausal symptoms. Black cohosh is one of the top-selling herbs in the U.S. and is popular as an alternative to hormonal therapy in the treatment of menopause. Study results are inconclusive as to whether black cohosh improves menopausal symptoms. An NCCAM-funded study found that it “failed to relieve hot flashes and night sweats in postmenopausal women or those approaching menopause.” Similarly, there is not enough reli- able data to show black cohosh’s effectiveness for rheumatism. United States Pharmacopeia experts suggest “women should discontinue use of black cohosh and consult a health care practitioner if they have a liver disorder or develop symptoms of liver trouble.” Some people have experienced side effects of stomach discomfort, headache and rash, but in general, side effects were minimal. While some early smaller studies have supported the use of black cohosh for relieving meno- pausal symptoms, more recent, reliable studies have failed to duplicate those results.

Saw Palmetto

This herb is used commonly in Europe for symptoms of benign prostatic hypertrophy-BPH (enlargement of the prostate). In the U.S., saw palmetto is the most popular phytotherapy treatment for this condition; a 2006 study revealed that more than 2 million men in the U.S. were using saw palmetto for BPH. It has also been used for low sperm count, low libido, male pattern hair loss and bladder issues. Numerous studies support the validity of its effectiveness with enlarged prostate, although more recent studies sponsored by NCCAM have not produced the same supportive results. Nevertheless, the most reliable reviews support the use of saw palmetto for BPH. Use of this herb is likely safe when used in recommended doses in healthy adults for three to five years but may be unsafe in patients with bleeding disorders.