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Here’s Why Herbal Supplements Shouldn’t Be Your Holy Grail, According to a Doctor

Dr. Marysol Dalisay-Gallardo, a palliative medicine specialist, explains the dos and don'ts of taking herbal supplements.

Over the past few months, herbal supplements have gained popularity in the Philippines—not just with the older generations, but also with the young ones.

But honestly, who wouldn’t be persuaded to try these supplements? After all, they promise to be all-natural, organic, and have no preservatives and chemicals added. Plus, they claim to be a natural ‘cure’ and ‘prevention’ method to illnesses that even medicines aren’t able to cure, like cancer.

However, it should also be noted that these supplements have no therapeutic claims—meaning, their ‘curing’ effects are not clinically proven or approved by the appropriate organizations and experts. Hence prompting the question: Are herbal supplements really worth vouching for? (Read: Traditional Filipino Healthcare Practices: How Effective Are They?)

My Pope enlists the expertise of Dr. Marysol Dalisay-Gallardo, a palliative medicine specialist from the Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore, so we can better understand what herbal supplements are and what their effects are to the body.

Photo from Healthline

What is the difference between herbal supplements and medicine?

Herbal supplements are generally categorized under dietary supplements. Their labels are required to state, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” However, product labels are allowed to make health claims, such as “promotes prostate health” or “supports the circulatory system.”

More importantly, makers of dietary supplements are not required to prove the efficacy, safety, or quality of a product prior to marketing. Supplement manufacturers are also not obligated to report post-marketing adverse events. 

On the other hand, pharmaceutical drugs undergo FDA’s rigorous evaluation process, which scrutinizes everything about the drug–from the design of clinical trials to the severity of side effects to the conditions under which the drug is manufactured. It needs to prove its efficacy, safety, or quality prior to marketing and also its post-marketing surveillance.

Photo from iStock / Harvard Health – Harvard University

What are the pros and cons of using herbal supplements?

Herbal supplements are pharmacologically active and therefore can positively and negatively impact patient health. Positive effects may include the improvement of disease-specific outcomes. A variety of Asian herbs are sought as a natural approach to management of asthma. (Read: Liza Soberano Opens Up About Anxiety, Shares Tips for Good Mental Health)

Negative effects may include adverse effects and drug-herb interactions. Caution should be exercised in the use of herbs in older adults due to possible decreased renal and hepatic clearance of herb and drug metabolites. Additionally, for older individuals taking multiple medications, there is a greater potential for herb-drug interactions.

Photo from Getty Images / WebMD

Why do you think some people prefer herbal supplements over medicines?

It is appealing to those who perceive nature as benevolent and healing. Associated with this is the mistaken perception that a naturally-derived product is safer than the use of western medicine prescribed by doctors. (Read: 5 Saints to Call on for Health-Related Problems)

Do herbal supplements really do what they say they do?

I don’t think so. There is still uncertainty in the evidence that they are effective and I have not seen a significant number of patients who were cured with the use of herbal supplements.

What issues may arise from the increasing popularity of herbal supplements?

Doctors may encounter patients having herb-drug interactions that can affect a patient’s management. (Read: A Prayer for Good Health and Protection) Also, patients may forego lifesaving treatments like chemotherapy or surgery over the choice of just using herbal supplements with insufficient evidence of cure.

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Why is it important to seek a doctor’s advice when taking herbal supplements?

Patients seeking or already using herbal treatments should have an appropriate evaluation from their doctors for their condition and what brand [of supplements] should be used. (Read: How do you eat healthy while in quarantine? We asked a nutritionist-dietician!)

The majority of herbal products do not fall under either the “recommend” or “discourage” category. For these products, clinicians would counsel and caution patients regarding the uncertainty of the evidence. If the patient chooses to proceed with an herbal product, a plan should be agreed on for ongoing monitoring.

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