Traditional Chinese Medicine
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Consider Safety, Too
Herbal supplements are
a type of dietary supplement (see the box below) that contain herbs,
either singly or in mixtures. An herb (also called a botanical) is a
plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, and/or therapeutic
Many herbs have a long
history of use and of claimed health benefits. However, some herbs have
caused health problems for users. This fact sheet contains points you
should consider for your safety if you use, or are thinking about
using, herbs for health purposes. It does not discuss whether herbs
work for specific diseases and conditions.
were defined in a law passed by Congress in 1994. A dietary supplement
must meet all of the following conditions:
- It is a product (other
than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet, which contains one or
more of the following: vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals;
amino acids; or any combination of the above ingredients.
- It is intended to be
taken in tablet, capsule, powder, softgel, gelcap, or liquid form.
- It is not represented
for use as a conventional food or as a sole item of a meal or the diet.
- It is labeled as being
a dietary supplement.
- It's important to know
that just because an herbal supplement is labeled "natural" does not
mean it is safe or without any harmful effects. For example, the herbs
kava and comfrey have been linked to serious liver damage.
- Herbal supplements can
act in the same way as drugs. Therefore, they can cause medical
problems if not used correctly or if taken in large amounts. In some
cases, people have experienced negative effects even though they
followed the instructions on a supplement label.
- Women who are pregnant
or nursing should be especially cautious about using herbal
supplements, since these products can act like drugs. This caution also
applies to treating children with herbal supplements.
It is important
consult your health care provider before using an herbal supplement,
especially if you are taking any medications (whether prescription or
over-the-counter). Some herbal supplements are known to interact with
medications in ways that cause health problems. Even if your provider
does not know about a particular supplement, he can access the latest
medical guidance on its uses, risks, and interactions.
- If you use herbal
supplements, it is best to do so under the guidance of a medical
professional who has been properly trained in herbal medicine. This is
especially important for herbs that are part of an alternative medical
system (see the box below), such as the traditional medicines of China,
Japan, or India.
systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice, and
have often evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical
approach used in the United States. To find out more, see NCCAM's fact
sheet "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?"
- In the United States,
herbal and other dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) as foods. This means that they do not have to
meet the same standards as drugs and over-the-counter medications for
proof of safety, effectiveness, and what the FDA calls Good
- The active
ingredient(s) in many herbs and herbal supplements are not known. There
may be dozens, even hundreds, of such compounds in an herbal
supplement. Scientists are currently working to identify these
ingredients and analyze products, using sophisticated technology.
Identifying the active ingredients in herbs and understanding how herbs
affect the body are important research areas for the National Center
for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
- Published analyses of
herbal supplements have found differences between what's listed on the
label and what's in the bottle. This means that you may be taking
less--or more--of the supplement than what the label indicates. Also,
the word "standardized" on a product label is no guarantee of higher
product quality, since in the United States there is no legal
definition of "standardized" (or "certified" or "verified") for
- Some herbal
supplements have been found to be contaminated with metals, unlabeled
prescription drugs, microorganisms, or other substances.
- There has been an
increase in the number of Web sites that sell and promote herbal
supplements on the Internet. The Federal Government has taken legal
action against a number of company sites because they have been shown
to contain incorrect statements and to be deceptive to consumers. It is
important to know how to evaluate the claims that are made for
supplements. Some sources are listed below.