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Do We Really Need Herbal Supplements?

By: Elizabeth Hinds - Updated: 3 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Herbal Supplements Gingko Biloba Ginseng

There are huge commercial enterprises dedicated to providing herbal supplements but do we really need them?

A normal person eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting plenty of rest, should be getting everything he needs naturally. However we all have times in all our lives when we’re too busy to eat properly, or when we’re anxious or stressed, or simply when we’re getting older, when we need a little extra boost to our system. And that’s when we may consider taking herbal supplements.

Gingko biloba

Gingko is one of the most popular and best-selling herbal supplements available today, its popularity largely based on the belief that it helps improve memory and brain activity.

The gingko biloba tree is one of the most ancient and long-living species of tree - there are examples of trees 1,000 years old – and for thousands of year traditional practitioners have been using it to improve the circulation of the blood. Gingko is also now known to contain antioxidants that combat naturally-occurring compounds (free radicals) in our bodies that cause cell damage. It’s thought that free radicals may be involved in the damage to cells seen in patients suffering with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Studies have shown that ginkgo is unlikely to prevent the onset of dementia but some research suggests it may help improve the memory of sufferers. However other studies have suggested that it doesn’t have an effect on normal age-related memory loss in otherwise healthy people.

Very few side effects have been recorded and it’s generally considered safe. However there are certain exceptions.

  • Don’t take gingko if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or have epilepsy.
  • Consult your doctor before taking gingko if you’re on anti-depressants or blood-thinning medication as it may trigger side effects.
  • If you’re worried about your memory or uncertain about taking gingko for any reason, consult your doctor first.

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort or hypericum is often used as an alternative treatment for depression. Commonly found growing wild, this yellow-flowering plant has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. It’s thought that chemicals found in the plant act in a similar way to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to correct an imbalance in the brain.

Research has shown that in cases of mild to moderate depression St. John’s wort may have a beneficial effect. In cases where the depression is more severe it was found to be less successful.

St. John’s wort comes in capsule form and is easily available from health shops and the internet. Like other anti-depressants it will take several weeks before you begin to feel the benefit. Although it’s a herbal treatment St. John’s wort brings about a chemical reaction. For this reason it is probably wise to consult your doctor before starting a course of treatment. There are a number of recognised possible side effects and some doctors don’t recommend its use.

St. John’s wort shouldn’t be taken if:

  • you’re pregnant or breastfeeding;
  • you’re taking SSRI antidepressants or other prescribed medicine. Consult your doctor.

Ginseng

Like gingko and St. John’s wort, Asian ginseng has long been used in traditional medicine. A native of China and Korea, the root of Asian ginseng contains the active ingredient that is used in the preparation of tablets, ointments and teas.

It is claimed that ginseng improves the immune system, lowers blood sugar and can be used to treat erectile dysfunction. There is some evidence to back up these claims but there have not been large numbers of clinical trials to test the efficacy of ginseng; most research has been laboratory-based.

Short-term use of ginseng is generally regarded as safe but long term usage may lead to unwanted side effects such as headaches and intestinal problems.

As with the other herbal supplements we’ve looked at, you’d be advised to consult your doctor before undergoing a course of treatment especially if you’re diabetic.

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