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Exercise caution with herbal remedies

When you were younger, your mother may have suggested drinking a bay leaf tea to calm a queasy stomach. For a sore throat, you may have swallowed a spoonful of honey. To calm jitters, you may have turned to chamomile. What you may have not known then is that you were taking herbal remedies for common ailments.

The herbal market is a billion dollar industry. According to a report in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, about one-third of adults in developed countries and more than 60 percent of people in Asia use herbal medicines for health promotion or treatment of various chronic diseases. Herbal medicines can now routinely be found lining the shelves of everything from pharmacies to supermarkets to discount stores.

Many consumers feel if a product is sold over the counter it is safe to use, even if they haven't consulted a physician. This is not always true. Certain herbal remedies require as much caution as prescription drugs. Furthermore, it is often imperative for individuals to understand the dosing instructions and drug interactions that come with herbal medicines.

Unlike prescription medications, herbal remedies may not be required to undergo the strict testing measures for safety and efficacy. These products also may not be checked for quality control, such as whether the same level of active ingredient is contained in each package -- or even pill. Sometimes it is buyer beware when it comes to herbal medicines.

That isn't to say that all herbal products are bad. Herbal medicine, sometimes referred to as botanical medicine or herbalism, has been practiced with great success throughout history. Before there were pharmacies or drug manufacturers, ancient cultures relied on the products of the land -- namely plants -- to improve overall health and to treat illnesses. No one knows for sure when humans first began using herbs for medicinal purposes, but there are written records of herbal medicine use in China dating back to 2800 B.C. Since then, herbalism has fallen out of favor, only to resurface several times. Herbs were used in Ancient Greece, monks once employed their use, and when lack of availability of drugs occurred during World War I, herbal medicines increased in use. Herbal remedies are still in use today and may have found even more supporters.

Although the European Union started to regulate the testing of herbal medicines beginning in the 21st century, there still isn't any official overseer to most of the herbal products on the market.

Thanks to rising healthcare costs, many people turn to herbal medicines in lieu of seeking out professional medical advice. This can be dangerous, because, although these products come from nature, they can carry with them side effects and produce drug or food interactions similar to prescriptions.

For example, St. John's Wort, one of the more popular herbal remedies, is a common product used to ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and because of its widespread availability, most patients assume it to be safe. But St. John's Wort may cause photosensitivity, meaning individuals with fair skin could have an increased risk for sunburn. Also, Biol Psychiatry has released data that St. John's Wort may cause manic episodes to occur in bipolar individuals. Immunosuppressants, benzodiazepines and antiretrovirals, as well as many other prescription drugs, are known to interact negatively with St. John's Wort.

Here are some other popular herbal medications and their potential drug interactions.

* Echinacea is used to boost the immune system and fend off colds and flu. But it may cause inflammation of the liver if used with certain other medications, such as anabolic steroids, methotrexate or others.

* Feverfew is used to minimize migraine headache attacks and for rheumatoid arthritis. It may increase bleeding risk, especially in those taking anti-clotting medications.

* Ginseng increases concentration and physical stamina. Those using ginseng can see an increased heart rate or higher blood pressure.

* Kava-kava is used to calm nervousness or muscle spasms. However, Kava-kava may increase the effects of certain anti-seizure medications and/or prolong the effects of certain anesthetics. It can also enhance the effects of alcohol.

Many herbal remedies are notorious for affecting metabolism, meaning they can be dangerous for people taking medications that need to be dosed into the blood stream at a specific rate.

It is best to discuss use of an herbal remedy with a doctor or pharmacist prior to beginning any treatment. Always keep health professionals apprised of changes in herbal or vitamin usage, as it may interfere with prescriptions the doctor has issued or may issue.

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