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Danger Seen in Rising Herb Use

Surveys show number of users tripled

FRIDAY, May 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- More people are using herbal supplements and remedies, a new study says. And that has one researcher worried folks aren't treating the little pills with enough respect.

"People don't think of taking supplements as treating health problems. They consider them like vitamins, not as preventive or treatments," says study leader Nancy P. Gordon, an investigator with Kaiser Permanente's division of research in Oakland, Calif.

They also don't tell their doctors what they're taking, and doctors don't ask the right questions about supplement use to ensure proper medical care, she says.

Gordon and her team examined data from health surveys in 1996 and 1999, each involving about 16,000 adult members of Kaiser Permanente in northern California. Participants were asked to answer eight pages of questions, including what homeopathic medicines, megavitamins and herbal medicines they took.

The percentage of people reporting using herbal supplements or remedies jumped from 3.6 percent in 1996 to 13.3 percent in 1999.

The 1999 survey also included questions about specific herbal supplements, including gingko biloba, saw palmetto, echinacea, kava, glucosamine and St. John's wort.

Gordon says those supplements may have contributed to the big surge in use reported in 1999 because many people surveyed in 1996 may not have known what constitutes an herbal supplement. She says asking about specific supplements may account for why, for example, the percentage of women over age 65 who reported using supplements rose from 10 percent to nearly 30 percent in the three-year period.

"The take-home message is when clinicians do a medication history, they should give examples, not just ask 'are you using any herbal remedies?'" Gordon says. And, they should alert patients to possible interactions between supplements and prescription or over-the-counter medications, she says.

"A big problem with supplements is the doses can be different" because the Food and Drug Administration doesn't make any dosage recommendations. And, "in stores, people don't have anyone to ask who's knowledgeable" about their medical histories, Gordon says.

"For example, gingko can cause bleeding, and for those taking blood thinners, there can be potentially bad consequences. People really need to alert their doctors" about the supplements they take, she says.

"Anytime any person, whether a lay person or professional, is going to self-medicate with herbs, vitamins or supplements, they definitely need to inform their main health-care practitioner of what they're taking," says Mindy Green, director of education for the Herb Research Foundation of Boulder, Colo.

People also need "to learn how to read the labels, to be clear on what they're taking and the reasons why," and make sure they share that information with their doctors, Green says.

The study was presented at the recent Complementary and Alternative Medicine conference in San Francisco.

What To Do

Get more information on herbal supplements from the American Pharmaceutical Association.

Learn about particular herbal remedies at HerbMed.org.

For more HealthDay stories on herbal supplements, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Nancy P. Gordon, Sc.D., investigator, Kaiser Permanente's division of research, Oakland, Calif.; Mindy Green, M.S., director of education, Herb Research Foundation, Boulder, Colo.
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