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Tips on How to Use Herbal Supplements Wisely

While the herbal industry offers lots of promise and possibilities, it is also rife with problems and risks. Dr. Woodson Merrell, executive director of the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City explained.

More people are turning to herbal supplements and natural medicines as an alternate way to prevent and fight disease, or just as a way to live longer. This alternate treatment is more affordable than pharmaceutical drugs, and some people even grow the plants in their own backyards to make the remedies at home.

Critics of natural/herbal medicines point to the fact that many of these drugs have not been scientifically researched enough and, many times, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which allows supplements to by pass strict FDA rules for prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Manufacturers are not required to prove the safety and effectiveness of an herbal product and are not required to report to the government any side effects or bad reactions caused by their products. So it's much harder to keep records on public complaints.

The following is a list of the most popular herbal supplements, and the ailments they help remedy:

Echinacea: Immune System

Speeds recovery from colds, coughs, fevers and infections, though it doesn't prevent them. Shouldn't be taken by people with immune system problems such as multiple sclerosis, AIDS or rheumatoid arthritis.

Ginkgo: Memory, Circulation

Typically used to improve memory. It increases oxygen supply to the brain and boosts general circulation. Because it can thin the blood, Ginkgo shouldn't be taken with drugs (such as daily aspirin) that do the same.

Kava Kava: Anxiety

Acts as a mild sedative and muscle relaxant. Used to reduce anxiety, though it does not treat depression. Don't mix with alcohol, tranquilizers, or other drugs that affect the central nervous system.

St. John's Wort: Depression

Improves mood by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain. May cause sun sensitivity. Recent research indicates it increases the metabolism of several medications (including birth control pills) and lowers blood levels of protease inhibitors (AIDS drugs) and drugs used in transplant patients to keep their bodies from rejecting their new organs. Should not be taken with any medication, including antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft, unless monitored by a physician.
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