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Herbal medicines

What are they?

Herbal medicines are extracts from plants and flowers used to prevent and treat illness. Herbal remedies have been used for a wide range of conditions, from headaches to depression, PMS to insomnia. Most health food stores contain hundreds of bottles or packages of tablets containing various herbal preparations. Some common herbs include:

  • chamomile: Commonly used as a tea, chamomile may help promote relaxation and improve some digestive problems.
  • St. John's wort: Available orally as tablets, a tincture, and a liquid extract, this herb may help to treat mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety. It is also available for topical use (applied to the skin) for minor skin wounds and injuries. St. John's wort can interact with many medications including prescription antidepressants, immunosuppressants (e.g., cyclosporine), anti-HIV medications, cholesterol-lowering medications, oral contraceptives, digoxin, theophylline, migraine medications, anticoagulants (e.g., warfarin), anti-epilepsy medications (e.g., phenytoin, carbamazepine), and thyroid medications. If you are taking other medications, talk to a health care professional before taking this herb.
  • saw palmetto: Available in tablets, capsules, tea, and liquid forms, this herb may help improve the symptoms of mild-to-moderate benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a condition where the prostate gland is enlarged. This herb should not be taken with finasteride, flutamide, or other androgen medications.
  • ginger: This herb may help decrease nausea caused by pregnancy and ease motion sickness. It's available as capsules and tablets. Since ginger may lower blood sugar levels, careful monitoring is necessary for people taking diabetes medications.
  • glucosamine: Often used to treat joint pain and stiffness related to arthritis and sports injuries, glucosamine can affect sugar levels in diabetics and therefore should be used with caution and under the supervision of a doctor.

A word of caution

Although there is some scientific evidence showing that certain herbs have health benefits, much of the information is limited to individual reports or small scientific studies. Many have not yet undergone the same testing and approval procedure as prescription and over-the-counter medications. If you're considering buying a herbal product, talk to your pharmacist or doctor first.

Many herbs can affect prescription and non-prescription medications and should not be taken by people with certain medical conditions. Look for the Natural Product Number, or NPN, on products sold in Canada. A product with an NPN indicates that Health Canada has assessed the product for safety, quality, and effectiveness under its health claim.

Make sure you know:

  • if there is evidence to support the use of the herb
  • if the herb can interact with other medications or vitamins
  • what side effects are associated with the herb
  • what medical conditions the herb should not be used for
  • how to take and store the herb properly

Note that Health Canada has recalled or issued warnings about the use of certain herbal products because of toxicity, or due to harmful interactions with prescription or over-the-counter medications. Recalled products include the herbs kava and ephedra (ma huang).

If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, or if you are considering becoming pregnant, always talk to your doctor and pharmacist before taking any herbal products.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

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