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We are bombarded these days with advertising for herbal and botanical solutions to our aches, pains, lack of energy and stress. Whether you’re feeling blue or suffering arthritis pain, whether you’re having trouble sleeping or just don’t have the pep you used to, the herbal industry offers you an answer.

Many of us have come to believe if the product is natural, it’s safe. This is not true. Herbal medications carry risk, just as over the counter medications and prescription medications do. Many of our prescription medications come from herbals; foxglove or deadly nightshade is used to make Digitalis and Belladonna is the basis for the drug Atropine. These herbals can be deadly but as medication they are often life saving.

In the United States, the manufacturing, marketing and sales of herbal supplements is largely unregulated. This is the result of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which sets these products aside as dietary supplements rather than drugs. This means that the Food and Drug Administration cannot regulate herbal products like they do prescription and over the counter medications.

This lack of regulation presents some dangerous possibilities. There are few labeling requirements for herbal products and few of the product labels indicate that the products can interact with other medications. Warnings about side effects and allergic reactions are usually not included. Yet these products have the same or even greater potential in some cases, of interactions and side effects that over the counter and prescription medications do.

No regulations control product quality and dosing accuracy in the U.S. Plant products present a special challenge in that the medicinal ingredients vary in potency from plant to plant and season to season. Unless extracted in highly controlled laboratory conditions, this results in tremendous variation in potency in the resulting herbal product. A recent study reported in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy on ephedrine products found great variation in the amount of ephedra supposed to be in the products and the actual amount found. The disparity ranged from no ephedra at all to 154% more than the label indicated. This would be intolerable within the pharmaceutical industry.

This nonstandard dosing means that each time you purchase a new bottle of any given herbal product; you are exposed to a new risk. You may have tolerated the last bottle just fine; experiencing no side effects or interactions. However, since there is no guarantee that the next bottle you buy will have exactly the same amount of the active ingredient in the dose, you have a new risk of interaction and side effects.

While many find relief and benefits using herbal products, no one should use them without understanding that they are drugs and have the potential dangers that over the counter and prescription drugs do. Informed choice is what should be sought. Read and understand the labels and dosing instructions before adding herbal supplements to your health regimen. Educate yourself on the potential side effects and interactions that the herbals you are considering may have. Discuss the products you are considering with your physician. You do not need to gain his or her approval for using them; you should make use of their knowledge on potential risks, though. Do not assume that natural means safe. Your life may depend on it.