Herbal Supplements vs. Pharmaceutical Drugs:

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How to choose what is best for you?

Medicines, both herbal and pharmaceutical, are big business. We spend vast amounts on both prescription drugs and herbal remedies. Whether it is a matter of treatment or prevention, we want the safest, most effective option available. But determining whether that option should be herbal or pharmaceutical is as problematic a question as it is important. We can begin by considering some common perceptions, as well as some facts…



Herbal remedies are perceived as more natural than drugs, with fewer side effects, and a lower cost. When it comes to cost, this is often the case. In the case of inflammation, for example, a popular herbal remedy costs as little as $0.38 per day while the pharmaceutical alternative can cost up to $8. In fact, the high cost of prescription drugs can cause many people to skip doses or leave prescriptions unfilled. In this case, the herbal supplement seems an attractive alternative to pharmaceutical drugs, but before deciding in favour of herbal supplements in general, we need to look at how both industries are regulated. The fact is that herbal supplements receive far less governmental regulation than pharmaceutical drugs.

Regulation of Drugs

The FDA or MOH (or similar government agencies) are responsible for monitoring the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products. Pharmaceutical companies must provide the FDA with research from clinical trials to prove their new drugs are safe before they are allowed on the market. At the same time, the crucial last stage of research and development is usually sponsored by the company that makes the drug, even if the early research was done elsewhere. And there is always the possibility that companies can rig clinical trials to make their drugs look better than they are.

Regulation of Herbal Supplements

Alternatively, herbal supplements are regulated as foods in most countries around the world, as opposed to drugs. Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products are safe before marketing them, but the manufacturers generally aren’t required to register their products with any regulative agency, unless the ingredients are new to the market. The law allows supplement manufacturers to claim their products help “maintain the structure or function of the body” without preapproval or regulation.

In contrast to pharmaceuticals, which require pre-approval, the regulative agency must prove that an herbal product is dangerous to the public before it can be taken off the market. This can take years. In one case it did take years, and numerous reports or people suffering strokes, heart attacks and seizures for a popular weight loss supplement to finally spur the FDA into action.

When choosing an herbal remedy you also need to make sure that what you get in a supplement bottle is really is what it says it is. A recent survey of a popular herb used for sleep problems found that many of the products were of low potency or even contaminated with heavy metals.

Drug/Herb Interactions

Just as in interactions between drugs, many herbs can cause adverse reactions when combined with drugs or other herbal supplements.

This lack of information can have serious implications. For example, the popular memory booster ginkgo when taken with aspirin may cause bleeding. In addition, ginger should not be mixed with Aspirin, Coumadin or other blood thinning medicine.

Of course, herbs and drugs can also complement each other. For example when taking Lipitor, you can take coenzyme Q10; besides elevating the liver enzymes, coenzyme Q10 seems to decrease muscle breakdown and reduce pain and discomfort for people taking statins.

So what can you do to protect yourself? What can you do to decide whether to choose an herbal remedy or a pharmaceutical drug?

There is no easy answer so our conclusion is this: do your homework and find out all you can before making any herb or drug a regular part of your health routine. Also, be sure to speak with your doctor and a pharmacist before taking a supplement or mixing a pharmaceutical product and a supplement.



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