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Does “Natural” Always Mean “Safe”?

Melissa Ortega Have you noticed how many shelves at your local drugstore are taken up these days by vitamins and herbal supplements? Studies show that more than half of Americans take some sort of dietary supplement, including products with unusual names like gingko biloba and valerian.

You wouldn’t be the first person to wonder what these herbal products are, and if they are safe or effective. You may also wonder who you can ask about them.

Herbal or “natural” products are extracts of plants or food (the leaves, stems, bark, or flower) that claim to have medicinal value and be beneficial for human health. However, it is important to remember that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe.” Because herbal supplements and vitamins are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, there is no guarantee about their safety or effectiveness.

These products can act just like prescription medicines, however, in that they can cause side effects, interfere with your other medications, or even worsen your health. In fact, some herbal products have been known to cause serious illnesses, allergies, high blood pressure, or even organ damage. Therefore, it is vital that you tell both your doctor and your pharmacist if you are taking any of these products.

Because pharmacists have extensive education and training in medication use, we can be your best resource for information on these products and how much (if any) is appropriate for your medical situation.

For additional, general information about herbal supplements, check out the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (http://ods.od.nih.gov ) or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (http://nccam.nih.gov/).

Remember, “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe”!

Melissa Ortega, Pharm.D. candidate 2010, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL