Herbal Supplements: Buyer Beware


For the past several years, an herbal supplement craze has been sweeping the country. Promises and claims of fast weight loss, better health, deeper concentration, more accurate memory, increased sexual performance, and a myriad of disease cures have flooded the American market place. Many of these herbal supplements are offered by major consumer product companies while others are promoted, distributed, and sold by lesser known entities.

Along with these products come a number of claims by their manufacturers that make each herbal supplement sound like a magic elixir capable of eradicating disease and restoring good health. Often, these claims sound too good to be true. Many products are accompanied by catchy phrases such as "100% Natural" and "All Organic." Consumers who purchase herbal supplements may be mislead by these terms and use the products even though the ingredients contained within pose definite and serious health risks. The problem is further complicated by the lack of regulation over the manufacture and sale of herbal supplements and the absence of laws requiring warning labels and recommended dosages.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the sale or manufacture of herbal supplements. Therefore, manufacturers and retailers are free to tout their products almost any way they see fit and choose whether to warn the consumer of any possible adverse reactions to other medications they may be taking in conjunction with the supplements and other potential health risks.

For this reason, it is of paramount importance that anyone considering purchasing and using herbal supplements first consult with a physician to learn of the potential associated health risks and dangers. Many of the ingredients found in herbal supplements pose known risks when taken in conjunction with certain medications, and especially those that control or effect heart, liver, and kidney function, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Not surprisingly, many "herbalists" or "naturalists" show some disdain for the medical community and the claimed over-reliance by physicians on synthetic prescription medications when other "natural" remedies may offer an equally effective cure. Likewise, many physicians have come to dismiss the claims of the herbalists as unfounded and baseless, and relying more on myth and tradition than any rational or scientific proof that an herb is effective. In any event, the rift between these two groups should not serve to prevent the consumer from becoming fully informed about the health consequences herbal supplements may pose to their life and well-being.

One of the largest markets for the sale of herbal supplements in the United States is in the area of weight loss and appetite control. Each year, it has been reported that consumers spend billions of dollars on weight loss drugs and herbal supplements. Given the ready availability of diet products and herbal supplements, many consumers do not give a second thought to ingesting one or more supplements before educating themselves about their ingredients and content.

THE DANGERS OF EPHEDRA/EPHEDRINE

The introduction of herbal supplements designed to increase metabolism and decrease appetite for the purpose of weight loss have, perhaps, become the most popular products and, at the same time, the most controversial. The controversy surrounding this popular supplement type arises out of the combination of two highly potent co-stimulants: Ephedra (also known as Ephedra Sinica, Ephedrine, and Ma Huang) and Guarana, or as it is more commonly know, Caffeine. According to medical literature, the effect of these ingredients is to stimulate the central nervous system and increase heart rate. The result is that, for people who suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain cardiac conditions, serious and traumatic health consequences may result.

According to the Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines Second Edition, "[e]phedra has an addictive effect on the central nervous system when used in conjunction with caffeine[.]" Ephedra is know to interact with cardiac heart glycosides, halothane, guanethidine, secale alkaloid derivatives, oxytocin, and MAO-inhibitors. People with high blood pressure should not take any product containing ephedra. The combination of ephedra with caffeine increases the danger. Since the early 1990s, the FDA has received hundreds of reports of deaths and injuries purported to have occurred in conjunction with the use of herbal supplements containing ephedra and ephedra / caffeine combinations.

What most retailers and manufacturers profiting from the tremendous growth in sales of these products probably do not want their consuming public to know is that the chemical make up of ephedra / ephedrine is very similar to the drug Methamphetamine.

Of course, ephedra and caffeine are only two ingredients out of thousands found in herbal supplements that are finding their way into the stream of commerce.

THE LAW AS IT PERTAINS TO HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS AND PRODUCTS

If you believe that you or a family member has been injured as a result of using an herbal supplement or diet drug, you may be entitled to compensation. Many states have enacted laws designed to force diet centers and weight loss clinics to inform their customers of their basic rights when it comes to the program offered and the products sold. The State of Florida has enacted a law that requires commercial weight loss centers to provide prospective members with a "Consumer Weight Loss Bill of Rights" on a printed card and to prominently display those rights in a conspicuous place in the facility where the products or services are sold.

Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers may be liable for injuries or death caused by the herbal supplements that they sell and promote. The manufacturer, distributor, and retailer may be liable under a "product liability" theory. Depending on the facts of the case, numerous arguments and legal theories may be advanced to support the proposition that a certain herbal supplement is "defective." The failure to give adequate warnings of health risks on the label may cause a product to be deemed defective. Other defects may arise due to the inherent danger associated with the use of a product.

While many beneficial and legitimate herbal supplement products may be found on the market, the consumer should always cast a wary eye at manufacturer's and retailer's claims about any herbal supplement product and always consult with a physician before using any herbal pill or dietary aid. The consumer armed with the knowledge of the propensity of harm potential of using certain herbal supplements is a consumer capable of making the wisest choices about their health, life, and well-being.

Resources:

Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines Second Edition 2000
1997 Food and Drug Administration Report on Herbal Supplements
German E Commission Study and Report on Herbal Supplements
1999 American College of Cardiology Annual Meeting; Topic: Ephedra
Goodman and Gillman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, Ninth Edition