What you should know about herbal supplements

Published 7:17 pm Monday, December 21, 2009

Dear Savvy Senior,

What can you tell me about herbal supplements? Which ones really work and are they safe for seniors?

Health-Conscious Hal

Dear Hal,

Herbal supplements have become increasingly popular over the past few years, as millions of seniors are looking for natural and more affordable ways to improve their health. Heres what you should know.

Herbal Beware

While herbal remedies have been used for centuries to treat a variety of ills, its important to know that some herbs can actually be harmful to your health and many dont do what they claim to do. Herbs can also cause a large number of side effects and drug interactions, so its very important to talk with your doctor before you decide to try one.

Do They Work?

Since they are unregulated by the FDA, there are lots of ongoing clinical trials being conducted to determine the effectiveness and safety of herbal supplements. Heres what we know so far on some of the top-selling herbs.

Ginkgo biloba: Primarily taken to boost memory and help prevent Alzheimers disease, this is one of the most popular supplements sold to older Americans. However, in a recent six-year clinical trial (Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory study) of 3,000 participants age 75 or older, ginkgo was found to be ineffective at decreasing Alzheimers and other dementias. If youd like to try it, be aware that it can raise your risk of bleeding when combined with anti-blood-clotting medications. It can also counteract the blood pressure lowering effect of thiazide diuretic drugs and can interfere with anti-seizure medications.Garlic: Marketed as a pill, capsule or powder, garlic supplements are considered to be effective at modestly lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. It should not, however, be taken if youre taking anti-clotting medications like aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin) and clopidogrel (Plavix). Ginseng: Taken to boost energy, increase sex drive, prolong life and improve appetite. To date, research is not conclusive enough to prove or disprove its health claims. If you have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or are taking an anti-clotting medication, you should not use it. Saw palmetto: Used to treat the symptoms of an enlarged prostate, also known as benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). Although its safe and has few side effects, a 2006 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found it to be no more effective than a placebo.St. Johns wort: Taken as a treatment for mild depression, there is scientific evidence that shows it can work. It should not, however, be taken if you are on any antidepressants or anti-clotting drugs. And if youre taking other medications, be sure you check with your doctor or pharmacist first because it can cause serious side effects and increase or decrease the potency of many medications. &bsp;Echinacea: Used to boost immunity as well as prevent and treat the common cold, study results are mixed on its effectiveness. Some studies indicate that it doesnt help to prevent colds or other infections, but it may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections. Theres no harm in trying it unless youre allergic to ragweed or have an autoimmune disorder. Echinacea should not be taken long-term. Kava: Used to curb anxiety and stress, the FDA issued a warning in 2002 that kava supplements can cause severe liver damage. No one should use it. Valerian: Taken for anxiety and insomnia, research suggests it may be effective in helping you fall asleep, however, the jurys still out on how it helps with anxiety. Its also safe to use for short periods of time 4-to-6 weeks. To get more information on these and many other herbs, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at www.nccam.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm. Or call 888-644-6226 and order their free booklet Herbs at a Glance: A Quick Guide to Herbal Supplements, that features 42 herbs.

Dietary Supplements

Three other natural products that are extremely popular among seniors today are fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin, all of which fall into the dietary (not herbal) supplement category. Fish oil (omega 3) is proven to be a good supplement for boosting cardiovascular health. But glucosamine (commonly taken in combination with chondroitin) which is used for osteoarthritis, particularly in the knees, was found to be ineffective according to the 2006 GAIT study funded by the National Institutes of Health and a recent 2009 study by the University of Pittsburgh Arthritis Institute.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.~ Savvy Senior written by Jim Miller.