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More Turning to Herbs, Supplements, Despite Minimal Proof of Safety

Jan 14, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Although strong evidence is lacking on their safety and efficacy, the use of herbal and supplement medications is on the rise, especially in the midst of a rapidly sinking economy.  The Associated Press (AP) points out that consumers are delaying physician visits and turning to alternate forms of medication in an effort to keep costs down.

The AP notes that as the economy continues to falter, the herbal medicine industry is experiencing an upswing.  For example, Whole Foods spokesman Jeremiah C. McElwee told the AP that all of its stores are experiencing an increase in supplement and herbal product sales in recent weeks, adding that the trend is “noteworthy” in the midst of the economic downturn.  McElwee also pointed out, reported the AP, that even though the winter season usually brings an increase in such sales, even “more people are value shopping” because of the economy.

A couple of consumers interviewed by the AP said that with the high cost of medical care and the low return with insurance coverage, herbal alternatives are simply more cost effective, noting that old wives treatments, such as tea and honey, are significantly cheaper than even over-the-counter options.

In analyzing data, the AP reported that, nationwide, sales of vitamins and supplements climbed 10 percent in the recent three-month period, which includes a six percent increase in herbal supplements.  The AP report also noted nationwide increases in herbal and botanical supplement sales and some animal oil supplements.  Citing a government survey released last month, the AP reported that traditional medical costs were what prompted consumers to seek alternative solutions, quoting the report as stating,  “Nonvitamin, nonmineral natural products,” were taken by nearly 18 percent of Americans in 2007.  The report confirmed that cost was the driving factor, said the AP.

The Advocate reported that a recent federal survey—which involved 30,000 respondents—revealed that about 38 percent of U.S. adults 18 and older, and about 12 percent of U.S. children 17 and younger used some form of complementary and alternative medicine in 2007.  The survey was developed by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

A piece in this month’s issue of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) concludes that no compelling evidence exists that some herbal remedies for menopausal symptoms either are or are not effective, said Science Daily, citing a release issued by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).  The BMJ said that between 30 and 70 percent of women will experience some menopausal symptoms for anywhere from four to 12 years and that herbal remedies such as black cohosh, red clover, Dong quai, evening primrose oil, ginseng, wild yam extract, chaste tree, hops, sage leaf, and kava kava—to name of few—are often recommended.  According to the DTB, there is little information on the efficacy, safety, and drug interactions of these herbs.

DTB also points out that herbal studies are often not well designed or populated and may not be conducted for sufficient time periods and because of the lack of oversight, herb potency may differ from batch to batch and manufacturer to manufacturer.  As an example of conflicting results, said the DTB, some clinical trials conducted on black cohosh found it to be extremely helpful in the treatment of menopausal symptoms while others found no significant efficacy.

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