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The Essential Guide to Herbal Dietary Supplements: What to Know Before You Buy

By Frank L. Jaksch Jr. — There are many herbal supplements one can take to remedy various illnesses. Flaxseed lowers cholesterol. Echinacea helps prevent colds. Eucalyptus improves respiratory issues.

Taking dietary supplements have been shown to boost health and improve nutrition. As herbal supplements or botanicals are nothing new since plants have been associated with medical use for centuries, many believe botanicals are safe and effective to use.

But these benefits are just one side of the coin. Any herbal supplement that can produce a positive effect on your health will carry an inherent degree of risk.

Unlike other medications, herbal supplements aren’t as strictly regulated. In fact, herbal supplements do not require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While good manufacturing practices are followed, herbal supplements are only investigated after problems have been reported.

It’s important to understand the potential benefits and side effects before taking them. If you’re leaning towards employing complementary medicine therapy to alleviate certain illnesses, exercise caution. Speak with your doctor before trying any new type of dietary medication.

Having professional guidance from a healthcare practitioner ensures you avoid any unexpected side effects.


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A brief history of herbal supplements

Despite being a growing medical field, herbal medication has a long tradition in the medical community. Fossil records indicate that herbal medicines, ginkgo biloba in particular, have been around since at least the Paleozoic period.

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to document plant-based remedies. The Ebers Papyrus is acknowledged as one of the oldest known medical works regarding herbal medicines. It was compiled around 1550 BC and it contains 700 medical formulas and remedies meant to cure afflictions and illnesses.

Other ancient civilizations, from the Greeks to the Babylonians, were renowned herbalists. When colonists first reached the shores of the New World, Native Americans introduced medicinal plants and herbs indigenous to the Americas, such as Black Cohosh.

Since then, black cohosh has remained a popular medicinal aid, helping alleviate menopausal discomfort, among other uses.

Today, thanks to innovations in chemical analysis, medical science has contributed to the decline of herbal remedies. Regardless, herbal medicines have experienced a revival. Not only are many of today’s pharmaceutical drugs plant-based, but more and more physicians are revisiting traditional remedies to complement medical science.

The health benefits of herbal supplements

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 11% of the total 252 drugs on the essential medicine list is exclusively of plant origin. As the aim of herbal supplements is to treat underlying causes, they help to address nutritional deficiencies rather than mask or suppress symptoms.

Herbal supplements have long been documented for their ability to treat the underlying causes of diseases. Herbal supplements are most used to address persistent illnesses and major health concerns such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory problems, digestive issues, and skin conditions.

Herbal medicines are also used as a preventative measure to promote general well-being and restore the body’s natural balance. Additional benefits of herbal supplements include:

  • These are a cost-effective choice in treating diseases
  • These are easier to obtain than pharmaceutical medications
  • These have beneficial, healing properties
  • These address more than one condition
  • There are fewer side effects

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Understanding the risks

As previously mentioned, the FDA does not approve herbal medicines. In fact, herbal supplements are subjected to a different set of regulations. This means they cannot be designated as drugs or food, but rather as supplements.

If taken carelessly and without professional guidance, herbal supplements can have a devastating effect on your overall well-being. Taking several herbal supplements without the support of a healthcare practitioner can trigger complex chemical reactions in your body.

Herbal supplements will often come with many components that have several active reagents that could have dangerous side effects under the wrong conditions. Where herbs are harvested, processed, and packaged will also determine the chemical components of the supplement.

For example, a number of Asian herbal supplements have been found to have significant concentrations of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. This can contribute to a substantial risk of heavy metal poisoning, among other complications.

Unwanted pharmaceutical and herbal interactions have also been noted. Possible adverse interactions are common when prescription medicines and herbal supplements are used together without medical supervision.

Even without being compounded by pharmaceutical medicine, certain herbal ingredients have been found to be harmful to the body.

Bitter orange, aristolochic acid, and kava are noted natural ingredients, yet carry adverse effects. Bitter orange is associated with causing high blood pressure. Aristolochic acid can cause renal failure and urothelial cancer. And kava has detrimental effects on the liver.

With a lack of strict monitoring or regulations available, consumers must remain educated on the products they buy. To certify the credibility and ingredients of natural supplements, be sure to talk to your doctor. They can confirm potential problems or risks, particularly if you are taking prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

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The essential supplements to take

With herbal medicines gaining popularity, many are turning to traditional dietary supplements to complement their health. If you’re looking for a dietary supplement to better manage your health, below is a list of the 10 most common herbal supplements with mild adverse side effects.

1. St. John’s Wort

A flowering shrub native to Europe, St. John’s wort is a flowering plant of the genus Hypericum.

A popular herbal therapy, St. John’s wort has long been associated with alleviating symptoms of depression. While it’s most known for its antidepressant activity, it is also linked with improving PMS and menopausal symptoms and relieving inflammation and skin irritation.

2. Echinacea

Originally found throughout the regions of North America, echinacea has become a popular herbal remedy for treating and preventing a variety of illnesses, most commonly the common cold and flu. Scientific research has indicated that echinacea has the potential to be used as a preventive medicine to treat respiratory infections and boost immune cell response.

3. Black Cohosh

Introduced to the colonists by the Native Americans, black cohosh is an effective natural remedy for treating several menopausal conditions. This shrub-like plant has been linked with effectively treating menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, menopausal discomfort, cramps, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

4. Ginseng

Known for its ability to improve mood and mental performance, ginseng has been used by Native American and Chinese herbalists for centuries. As a popular herbal medicine, ginseng has been used for centuries to treat a range of medical conditions. Scientifically, ginseng has been known to improve cognitive function, treat erectile dysfunction, and lower blood sugar.

5. Milk Thistle

A native plant in several regions, from southern Europe to South Australia, milk thistle has been historically used as a supplement to treat liver disorders such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, and gallbladder problems. The scientific community remains split on the use of milk thistle as a treatment option for liver diseases.

Commentary on milk thistle as a herbal supplement suggests more rigorous studies are needed.

6. Chamomile

Considered as one of the most ancient medicinal herbs, chamomile is commonly used to treat ailments such as insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, hay fever, and menstrual symptoms. In recent years, chamomile has been scientifically found to be a helpful supplement in positively treating diabetes and lowering blood sugar.

7. Green tea

A plant native to China and India, green tea possesses health benefits that have been well documented. Used as a medicinal herb for centuries, green tea is loaded with nutrients and antioxidants known to improve brain function, aid in fat loss, and lower the risk of certain types of cancer.

Green tea has also been known to improve dental health and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

8. Ginkgo Biloba

An ancient natural herb, ginkgo biloba has been found in fossil records dating back millions of years. As such, its effects on health have been well investigated. Numerous clinical studies have reported ginkgo biloba as an effective alternative medicine to treating impaired cerebral circulation, particularly in the elderly.

Ginkgo has also been used to treat other health disorders such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and depression. A word of caution, though: Ginkgo can enhance the risk of bleeding in patients on antiplatelet or anticoagulant medication.

9. Aloe vera

Often described as a “wonder plant,” aloe vera has been used for centuries for its numerous health properties. Today, aloe vera is widely used in cosmetics, food (approved as a flavoring by the FDA), and herbal remedies.

Rigorous scientific studies have found aloe vera to be beneficial in treating cavities, constipation, ultraviolet (UV) irradiation, and second-degree burns.

10. Ginger

Despite being known mainly as a culinary ingredient, ginger has been well established as an effective ingredient for medicinal purposes.

Scientific analysis has found ginger to treat many lifestyle-related health conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to, nausea, inflammation, loss of appetite, and pain. As a dietary supplement, ginger has been found to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties beneficial to our health.

A final word on supplements

By leveraging the power of nature with the logic of science, herbal dietary supplements can contribute to the betterment of your health. It’s important to remember though that dietary supplements are not miracle workers.

Herbal supplements should serve as complementary medicine due to their deregulatory nature and lack of strict monitoring. There are active ingredients in herbal supplements that are significantly potent. And while they are beneficial to your health, these can present adverse side effects.

Consulting with your doctor or a neuropathic health practitioner first will ensure you understand all the potential risks and benefits of taking herbal supplements.


Frank L. Jaksch Jr. is the Chief Executive Officer and a co-founder of ChromaDex. He oversees research, strategy, and operations for the Company with a focus on scientific and novel products for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical markets. Mr. Jaksch earned a B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Valparaiso University.

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