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*[Image Goes Here]**                 Herbal supplements, are they really harmless? I’ve mentioned before that Health Canada thinks otherwise and plans to regulate natural health products to help ensure their safety.


Studies on the safety of these products are ongoing but the Canadian public continues to take supplements that are not regulated or proven safe. As a result the number of reported adverse reactions to these supplements has increased. A third of these included heart attacks, liver failure, bleeding, seizures and death.


Pharmaceutical companies have to test their drugs to ensure they don’t cause greater problems than the drug itself can solve. In contrast supplement companies have no obligation to test most of their products for safety before they market them. Most don’t test their products or only complete small studies that don’t give the whole picture. Supplement companies like to say that their products are safe because they’ve been used for centuries in other cultures, but traditional use didn’t mean taking capsules of herbs day after day.


Health Canada requires prescription drug manufacturers to promptly report any adverse reactions to their products. But so far these rules don’t apply to supplement makers; otherwise many deaths from the supplement ephedra may have been prevented. The leading manufacturer of ephedra – Metabolife, denied for years that they knew of any serious complaints about its products. In 2002 lawyers suing the company on behalf of injured customers discovered they had in fact received over 13,000 complaints from users.


It’s best to be skeptical of supplement companies and the retailers who sell them. At least until Health Canada starts to enforce its new regulations.


There are eight supplements consumers should avoid due to the high possibility of causing serious health problems. Some are still available, either over the counter of via the Internet despite Health Canada’s warnings.



Pharmaceutical drugs can also cause adverse reactions but at least you’re taking them under the supervision of a medical doctor who is aware of possible side effects. Treat supplements as you would a pharmaceutical drug. Inform your medical doctor or pharmacist you are taking them and use with caution.


In the meantime check out the website prepared by medical doctors and pharmacists, for objective, fairly reliable information on the safety of over 500 supplements.


Information adapted from the Nutrition Action Healthletter. November 2003. Vol 30/#9.


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