Are herbal supplements safe?

Dietary supplements are common products that you can find at pharmacies, convenient stores and even purchase online. Although they are often labeled as “all-natural,” and safe, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine says dietary supplements can cause potential health risks and serious side effects.

In an article published in EMBO Reports, Dr. Donald Marcus, professor emeritus of medicine and immunology at Baylor, and Dr Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook University, wrote about the dangers of encouraging the use of all-natural dietary supplements made from herbal plants.

The paper describes how this has become an international health hazard as The World Health Organization and China promote the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines, despite evidence that they can cause adverse side effects, fatalities and have not been tested in clinical trials.

“The popularity of herbal remedies in the United States and other developed countries is driven by rejection of science, celebrity endorsements and voluminous advertising,” Marcus said.


Herbal medicines are derived from plant extracts that are used worldwide as medicines. They claim to provide health and wellness benefits that are not based on scientific data, including weight loss, boosting energy and increasing athletic performance. In underdeveloped countries, they are often used as treatments for medical conditions.

While supplements derived from minerals such as multivitamins, zinc and calcium contain nutritional value and are generally harmless, Marcus explains that herbal or “all natural” supplements are often poor quality and offer little to no nutritional value. Although advertised as “all-natural,” they often contain purified prescription medications.

“People are misled to think there is something of nutritional value when there is no nutritional value,” he said. “The term “dietary supplement” conveys that it is safe and will improve nutritional status but that is actually not the case.”

Along with limited testing and minimal health benefits, Marcus adds that many people are unaware of the long-term side effects. Aristolochia, a plant used as a medicine in parts of Asia for decades, has been associated with kidney failure and cancer. In the United States and other parts of the world, there are reports of liver inflammation linked to the use of herbal supplements.

Although this is a worldwide concern, Marcus adds that people who at highest risk live in rural areas of developing countries and rely on healers providing herbal medicines for their health care.

“We’re trying to get the word out internationally and in the United States that people are putting themselves as risk by taking medicines that are promoted on the basis of false claims,” he said.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Marcus fears that it might be tempting for people to use supplements instead of prescription medication or for overall health concerns to avoid visiting a doctor’s office or clinic.

“At this time of anxiety and fear around the COVID 19 pandemic, people may turn to unproven remedies and neglect science-based guidance,” Marcus said. “Consumer groups and scientists need to inform the public about the hazards of dietary supplements.”

Marcus advises to avoid taking dietary supplements if you are uncertain about the ingredients or their safety. “Rather than putting something unknown in your body, it is best to seek medical treatment or advice from a healthcare provider,” he said.

-By Kaylee Dusang

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