Using Plant Supplements
So recently I’ve started taking a few plant based supplements and I’ve decided to write an article about them.
Plants have been used for treating the symptoms of health conditions throughout history. Herbal medicine, for example, is an important part of the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. People eat hundreds of different plants as food, but is it safe to use plant-based supplements?
What Are Plant-Based Supplements?
Plant-based dietary supplements are also known as phytomedicines or botanical dietary supplements. The Office Dietary Supplements (ODS) of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides general information on botanical supplements. The ODS defines botanicals as plants (or parts of plants) that are used medicinally, either for their therapeutic qualities, their scent, or their flavor. Herbs are a subset of botanicals, i.e. all herbs are botanicals, but not all botanicals are herbs.
To be considered a dietary supplement, a botanical product must be intended for use as a supplement to food and drinks, contain at least one dietary ingredient, and be intended for use by taking by mouth (as a capsule, dried product, fresh product, liquid, pill, powder, tablet, or tea bag). Dietary supplements are required by law to be labeled as such on the front of the packaging. Liquids can come in many forms, from prepared teas to tinctures (liquids that contain the plant-based product as well as alcohol and water, used to preserve the botanical) to decoctions (made by simmering certain roots, barks, or berries for a long period to produce a strong extract that the user drinks).
Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplements of any kind, including plant-based supplements, can’t be labeled for curing, diagnosing, preventing, or treating any disease. Therefore, consumers will often see supplements marketed for helping with symptoms rather than treating a defined disease.
Some Common Plant-Based Supplements
Some of the more common plant-based supplements used in the U.S.A. include:
- Aloe Vera
- Echinacea (from a daisy-like flower)
- Evening Primrose Oil
- Green tea
- Plant Based Protein Powder
- Saw Palmetto
- St. John’s Wort
Consumers can look up individual botanical ingredients at the ODS website.
It can’t be assumed that just because a product is “plant-based” that it is safe to consume in any amount. The safety of any given botanical dietary supplement depends on a number of factors that include:
- How supplements are used in combination with foods, drugs, and other supplements
- How the plant was prepared
- The chemical makeup of the plant
- The effect of the plant on the body
- The length of time one takes the supplement
Even a plant that is considered mild and safe in some preparations can be unsafe in other. Peppermint tea, for example, is generally considered a mild botanical substance that many people take for upset stomach, and this is quite safe. On the other hand, large amounts of peppermint oil can have the unpleasant side effect of anal burning in people who have diarrhea.
Plant-based supplements that have been banned in other countries can be sold in the U.S. These include yohimbe, or so-called “herbal Viagra,” which has been linked to serious side effects including cancer and kidney failure. Only one herbal substance, ephedrine alkaloids that come from the ephedra (also known as ma huang) plant, has ever been banned outright by the FDA. Consumers must do their research to make sure they’re not taking dangerous substances.
Consumers should talk to a health care provider before taking any new plant-based supplement or giving any supplement to children. It’s especially important to consult with a health care provider for those with the following conditions:
- The person is breast feeding or pregnant.
- The person is over the age of 65.
- The person is taking any prescription medication.
- The person will have surgery within the next four weeks.
Quality Control Processes
Plant-based dietary supplements should be standardized by the manufacturer to provide the consumer with the highest-quality product. This means that each serving or dose of the same size contains the same amount of the active ingredient. Manufacturers can do chemical testing to make sure that their herbal and botanical products are standardized.
In the U.S., manufacturers are not legally required to standardize their products. The federal government does not have a formal definition of “standardization,” so manufacturers can use the term however they like. Some manufacturers call their products “standardized” to mean that the product is made using a standard procedure. Note that this alone does not ensure that every dose of the product contains the therapeutic amount of the active ingredient.
A resource consumers can use for evaluating the safety of a specific supplement is The Consumer Lab website. ConsumerLab.com is an independent testing laboratory that approaches supplement manufacturers and asks them to have their products tested voluntarily. The user-friendly website allows visitors to find safety and effectiveness information about those products that the manufacturers have agreed to test.