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In my profession, I see people taking a wide range of herbal supplements. Some often do not know the dose or the brand they are taking, or remember why they are taking it. When I ask them where they’ve heard about it, I often hear answers like “from a friend” or “an advertisement in a magazine”.

Just because a supplement claim itself as “natural” does NOT mean it is harmless.  In fact, many have ingredients in them contained in pharmaceutical drugs. Manufacturers of supplements do not need to register their products with the FDA, nor do they need to get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Only standardization for supplements are those labeled “USP Verified”, meaning that manufacturers have voluntarily allowed an outside, nonprofit agency to verify the quality, purity, and potency of their product. For a list of products that have been verified by the USP, go to www.uspverified.org.

A smart consumer must ask: Are these supplements effective? Or even more importantly, are they safe? Do they interact with the medications I currently take? How does this supplement meet my current health needs?

In general, it is best to obtain nutrients through eating a balanced diet. The argument is that eating a whole food is what provides benefit, rather then an isolated form in a pill. However, there is evidence that certain herbs and supplements are helpful for certain conditions. It’s important to know that supplements are NOT risk free. In general, searching for information on the internet is no substitute for having a conversation with your healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement. However, providers themselves often lack knowledge on how to counsel patients on this issue.

Finding reliable information on herbs and supplements can be really challenging for many reasons. The internet is inundated with advertisements and outrageous claims. When you Google “dietary supplements”, the first three links that pop up are advertisements. Another reason reliable information is hard to find is that many supplements lack properly controlled scientific studies evaluating their effectiveness. And because supplements are not standardized, studies that do exist often have conflicting results. Below are some reliable resources to help you navigate through the web:

Online Resources

  1. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database
    • Great reference standard for Pharmacist and other healthcare professionals with detailed studies and references, interaction checkers, and pharmacological properties
    • Available online, as a book and App on your smart phone
    • Free version limited access, must pay for full access
  2. Medline
    • Allows you to search by supplement name or condition type; allows you to sign up to get CAM updates via email; also available in Spanish.
  3. National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
    • Contains a good reference tool called the “Herbs at a Glance” series, and has information on clinical trials.
  4.  Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets
    • Dietary supplement fact sheets for vitamins, minerals, herbs and more; FAQ; Link to tips on how to evaluate information found on the internet.
  5. Natural Standard
    • Comprehensive, even has patient handouts, recipes, nutrition information, practitioner search; Contains continuing education credits for healthcare providers.
    • Con: Require private membership, though available for purchase
  6. ConsumerLab.com
    • Provider of independent product testing on supplements to determine their purity and quality. Also contains news on latest research and studies, and product reviews
    • Great cross-comparison charts for different brands of similar supplements
    • Free newsletter available, but access to their product database is limited to paid members
  7. ConsumerReports
    • Has a natural health section with detailed information on supplements and complementary alternative medicine; Has a link to explain potential dangers of supplements; Allows user to search for supplements individually; Allows user to sign up for free newsletters.
    • Cons: Subscription fee required. User is likely able to find similar information on government websites listed above without having to pay a fee.

The FDA site also has a tip for consumers on how to successfully navigate the web for herbal supplements.

Print Resources

Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Fifth Edition: A Practical A-to-Z Reference to Drug-Free Remedies Using Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs & Food Supplements by Phyllis A. Balch

    • A relatively inexpensive paperback (but quite dense, with over 900 pages).

Herbal recipe books:

*Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Heath: Teas, tonics, oils, salves, tinctures and other natural remedies for the entire family

*Therapeutic Herb Manual, by Ed Smith: A simple guide to use of liquid herbal extracts

-Written by Jenna Katzman, ANP-BC and Nancy Zou, Pharm.D.

Jenna Katzman is an Adult and Holistic Nurse Practitioner. She works
as an NP at Concorde Medical Group and as a neuroscience nurse at NYU Langone
Medical Center, in Manhattan. Her background includes Bachelors degrees from
Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey,
as well as a Master degree from NYU College of Nursing. Her interests include
integrative healthcare, aromatherapy, nutrition, Kundalini yoga, Reiki, and diabetes