Employee & Community Health

Are herbal supplements for you? 

2/27/2017 by Amanda Davis, PharmD

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St. John's wort, echinacea, ginkgo and garlic. You can find these herbal remedies, and more, in the vitamin aisle of any pharmacy, discount store and even your local supermarket. Many claim they will help with health problems using the "gentle, natural action" of herbs. 

Studies have shown that some herbal supplements are safe and effective. But the effectiveness of others hasn't been proven, and some have been shown to be harmful. Natural does not always mean safe. 

Herbs may be popular, but are they for you? That depends on the herb and your health needs. If you're thinking about using herbal supplements, this advice may help: 

  • Talk to your health care provider about herbal supplements you're considering before you start taking them to make sure they are safe for you. 
  • Learn about the herbal products you're thinking about using. 
  • Never take more than the recommended dosage. 
  • If it's safe for you to take herbal supplements, keep track of what - and how much - you take. Take one type of supplement at a time so you can determine if it's effective for you. 
  • Read the label. 
  • Don't take herbs if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. 
  • Don't expect immediate results. 
  • Be cautious about herbal supplements manufactured or purchased outside the United States. 

It may not be easy to separate fact from fiction when evaluating herbal remedies. Here are some tips for choosing the best herbal brands: 

  • Look for standardized herbal extracts. USP Verified on the label means that the product: 
    • Contains the ingredients shown on the label
    • Contains the amount or strength of ingredients stated
    • Will dissolve effectively so that your body can absorb the ingredients
    • Meets requirements for limits on contaminants
  • Beware of claims that sound too good to be true

Mayo Clinic has additional advice and information about herbal supplements, if you'd like to learn more. 

Amanda Davis, PharmD, is a pharmacist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Mayo Family Clinic Kasson. She also works in ECH's Anticoagulation Clinic.