By: Rachel Pappas, Breast Cancer Survivor and Founder of www.1UpOnCancer.com.
If your doctors are trained in conventional medicine, and you ask them about supplements and herbs, they may tell you there isn’t enough research to back that they have health benefits – and may even tell you they are unsafe. But the fact is, there is plenty of research to show that botanical, fungal, pre- and probiotic, and micronutrient-based supplements, have multiple health benefits—from boosting the immune system to fighting cancer-promoting inflammation. Some have even been proven to cause cancer cell death. They come mainly from plant-based foods, and are important, as most of us do not get enough of these nutrients from food.
As far as the safety issue, it is true: there are no guarantees that a supplement is all it is claimed to be, as they are not FDA-approved. Though the supplement and herb industry is becoming a little more regulated. And there are more measures you can take on your own to ensure you are buying a quality product.
First, know that U.S. government regulations require manufacturers to observe good manufacturing practices (GMPs), intended to help ensure there are no unsafe levels of contaminants and overall safety. And there are independent, third-party groups who test for products’ purity, strength and ingredients.
Still, your best guarantee that you are getting a safe, quality product, is to be a smart shopper.
Here are guidelines to follow when looking for supplements and herbs:
- Check the product label for the words “Current Good Manufacturing Practices” or “cGMPs.” This “seal” indicates that what is on the label matches what is actually in the bottle as far as ingredients and dose.
- Look for pharmaceutical grade. Pharmaceutical grade products have met the most stringent regulatory standards verified by an outside party. A dietician or integrative practitioner should be able to help you determine this level of quality. Or you may be able to confirm on the manufacturer’s website or call the toll-free number on the bottle.
- Check the label for one of these four names: ConsumerLab.com, the Natural Products Association, NSF International, and the United States Pharmacopeia. If the label has the “seal” of one of these organizations, it has passed a stringent certification process—its manufacturing facilities were inspected and the product has been tested and found to comply with specific standards for safety, quality and purity.
Know that some supplements and herbs can interact with each other, and with prescription and over-the-counter medications.
So tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking. But bring all information you have on the supplements with you to appointments, as most medical doctors are limited in their knowledge of natural therapies. A naturopathic doctor, herbalist, some dieticians, and pharmacists will likely be able to guide you in ensuring you are not mixing natural or pharmaceutical ingredients that could have harmful interactions.
Here are more resources to help you make informed choices:
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. For free downloadable fact sheets on individual vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements. http://ods.od.nih.gov
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For alerts, advisories, and other actions. http://www.fda.gov/default.htm
Consumer Reports Health’s Dietary Supplements and Natural Health Products Information. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/vitamins-and-supplements/index.htm For general information on supplements and herbs, including for some specific conditions. And information on safety.
In summary, here are smart tips:
- Examine the label. Look for seal: Current Good Manufacturing Practices or “cGMPs” And make sure it includes the name of a third party inspector (ConsumerLab.com, the Natural Products Association, NSF International, or United States Pharmacopeia.) Do your research and find out which manufacturers subject their products to third-party verification and testing. Only buy these.
- Always discuss any supplements you are considering with your doctor.
- If your doctor doesn’t know much about supplements (most conventionally trained doctors do not) consider also discussing this topic with a practitioner who is trained in their use.
Rachel Pappas is breast cancer survivor. She is the founder of www.1UpOnCancer.com. And the author of Hopping Roller Coasters, which tells the story of her and her daughter, both diagnosed with bipolar disorder.