Herbal medicine, while having little basis in objective science, has a foothold on the internet. A cursory Google search yields some reputable information, but interspersed within those sources, and jumping from the sidebar advertisements, are offers of all-natural vein-cleaning formulas which will improve your arteries; promises of effective, safe herbal pills from foreign websites that aren't even spelled and punctuated properly; "buy one, get one free" sales on expensive cardiac support formulas; and some place in China that will sell you stem cells for your heart. (I still haven't figured this one out; does it come in a can like Red Bull?)
This omnipresence of herbal and holistic medicine threatens the safety of Americans who are seeking ways to improve their overall health and lifelong wellness, all for the sake of generating advertising dollars for unscrupulous web hosts and funneling profits to largely unregulated manufacturers of worthless products. What's more, these herbal remedies are beginning to affect patient health, as doctors begin to notice interaction effects between prescribed medications and herbal aids that their patients take simultaneously.
In one recent study of asthma patients, 25% of those patients reported using an herbal remedy for asthma and a subsequent reduced use of prescribed asthma medications. The patients who used herbal remedies were more likely to have been hospitalized or intubated for asthma, and far less likely to take their prescribed medications. These patients experienced the lowest quality of life among all the study's subjects, likely attributable to not taking the recommended dosages of asthma prescription drugs.
Many herbal remedies which are commonly recommended by adherents to herbal and holistic medicine also may have dangerous interactions with common prescription drugs. St. John's Wort can inhibit liver function, which will also slow or even prevent the activity of heart medications, such as blood pressure medicines or drugs which regulate heart rhythm. Gingko biloba, touted as an herb which sharpens the mind and dilates the arteries, and garlic, an herbal supplement for heart health, can cause bleeding in patients taking blood thinners such as warfarin or even aspirin. And a wide spectrum of herbal supplements have immunosuppressive effects, which can compromise the efficacy of steroid-based treatments or slow the rate at which patients recover from potentially dangerous infections.
A key component in eliminating this danger to consumers is strengthening the relationship between patients and health care providers. Many "mom and pop" dealers of herbal products are taking business from actual doctors, or unknowingly impeding their prescriptions, because they're more accessible and attentive to the needs of the customer than their attending physician is. And not all patients feel open enough to discuss the herbal supplements they take with their doctors, or even think it's necessary to disclose such information during routine appointments. That perception has to change, say doctors who study drug trends. With an estimated 30% of patients resulting to herbal medicine, doctors and consumers alike need to be aware of what they are taking and how those compounds affect their bodies.