Government Puts Herbal Supplements Under Microscope

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By Lana Maciel, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Vitaminsundermicroscope.jpgIt seems that every day a new report is released announcing the discovery of an herb or supplement that can help fight disease. Fish oil, medicinal mushrooms, cranberries and vitamin D are just a few of the many natural supplements widely touted for their anti-inflammatory effects, ability to boost the immune system, improve health and even prevent cancer. But just how safe and effective are these over-the-counter products?

That's the question the federal government is asking as it begins a research initiative to better understand the specific effects of various supplements. The results will allow consumers to make more informed decisions on the risks and benefits of these products, which topped $5 billion in sales in 2009.

"Sometimes people assume because a product is natural, it is also safer," says Floyd Chilton III, director of the Center for Botanical Lipids and Inflammatory Disease Prevention at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "But these compounds can have benefits and potential side effects, and we need to understand both of those."

The Office of Dietary Supplements and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, both branches of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), spurred the initiative by awarding $37 million in August to dietary supplement research centers. The NIH also provided funds to the National Cancer Institute for researching the role of botanicals in cancer risk and tumor growth.

Research continues

An investigation by the General Accounting Office earlier this year found that 37 of 40 herbal supplements tested contained trace amounts of potentially hazardous contaminants, prompting governmental bodies to begin the research initiative.

Given that herbal supplements do not require approval by the Food and Drug Administration to be sold, many consumers "are using supplements for purposes for which they were not intended," says Marguerite Klein, director of the NIH Botanical Centers Research program. Some buy supplements for self-diagnosed health conditions, or they may combine multiple supplements with other medications, which is not safe.

So far, federally funded studies have proven the benefits of some supplements and disproved the claims of others. For example, chamomile capsules may help reduce anxiety compared to a placebo, while ginkgo biloba does not prevent heart attack, stroke or cancer, as was previously claimed.

"It's important to view concentrated herbs and botanicals as drugs that have the potential to cause harm or benefit. The key is to conduct good research to determine what is safe and effective to incorporate into the standard of care," says Lorenzo Cohen, director of MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program.

Researchers continue to investigate the effects of different herbs and botanicals in an oncology setting.

Ongoing preclinical and clinical research at MD Anderson is examining the effects of fish oil, oleander, curcumin and many other natural products for their ability to prevent and treat cancer.

MD Anderson resources:
Complementary Therapies at MD Anderson

Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson

Additional resources:

Office of Dietary Supplements (National Institutes of Health)

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIH)

Drugs, Herbs and Supplements (NIH)

Attribution Photo by: bradley j Some rights reserved

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