Herbal supplements and your health

Herbal remedies have been around for thousands of years and used by people in every country on every continent. As an example, curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, the spice used in curry, so popular in India was reported at a recent meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology to possibly be able to reduce the incidence of diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile in hospitalized patients. Commonly referred to as C. difficile, this germ produces a toxin (poison) that has been shown to be the cause of many cases of severe life-threatening diarrhea.

While such reports about the hopeful benefits of curcumin in preventing the growth and toxin production of C. difficile are promising, and further research may show that these benefits are actually real and effective, at the present time they are not yet conclusive and further study is required. But its potential value in controlling diarrhea due to C. difficile is not the only direction of research for curcumin.

Researchers at UCLA and the Salk Institute reported that curcumin, given to rabbits and rodents soon after an experimentally induced stroke may protect the brains of these animals from being damaged.

Dietary supplements are considered safe by most people because they don’t require a doctor’s prescription and are available OTC “Over-The-Counter.” Herbal remedies are often incorrectly thought of as being safer than the “chemicals” in manufactured drugs and medicines because they are “natural.” However, many herbal supplements contain biologically active compounds that can be dangerous on their own or by harmful interaction with other medicines your doctor may have prescribed for you or even with other over-the-counter remedies.

As recently reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, they may be harmful when used in conjunction with cardiovascular medications such as antiplatelet or anticoagulant drugs. For example, ginseng decreases the effects of warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven), while ginkgo, alfalfa, dong quai, bilberry, fenugreek, garlic, ginger and saw palmetto increase bleeding risk with warfarin, aspirin and clopidogrel (Plavix). No need to worry about alfalfa, garlic or ginger in food; it’s the concentrated amounts in herbal products that are the concern.

Also troublesome is echinacea, which can alter the heart’s electrical rhythm when taken with the antiarrhythmia drugs amiodarone (Cordarone, Pacerone, Nexterone) or ibutilide (Corvert). Echinacea also increases the risk of liver toxicity in people on a statin, fibrate or niacin. You should also be aware that St. John’s wort can alter the effectiveness of a wide range of medications.

Most herbal supplements have not undergone the extensive investigation and testing for safety or effectiveness that the FDA requires of prescription drugs and medicines. Perhaps it’s time to consider utilizing the time-tested methods of the FDA to establish herbal remedy criteria for effective dosage, safety and potential drug interactions. Until then, talk to your own doctor before trying any herbal supplement.

Have a Question? Call Dr. Okun at 718-241-6767

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