Your Health

Herbal Supplements

What are herbal products?

An herb is a plant or part of a plant used as a flavouring, nutritional supplement, or medical treatment. An herb may include the whole plant or part of the plant (for example, the leaves, seeds, bark, beans, or roots). Medical studies have shown that traditional herbal remedies can be useful in the treatment of certain medical conditions. In fact, many medications used today were first discovered in or come from natural herbs (for example, blood thinners and cancer medications). As with any medication, always read and follow the instructions on herbal product labels and follow the advice of your Peoples pharmacist or doctor.

What are some useful herbal products and supplements?

You may be familiar with herbal products such as echinacea, St. John’s wort, and ginkgo biloba, which are commonly used for medicinal or health purposes. Essential fatty acid (EFA) supplements and glucosamine sulphate can also be useful.


Echinacea, a plant native to the North American prairie, has been used increasingly by North Americans in recent years. Scientific research suggests that echinacea may help fight colds by boosting the immune system and fighting infection. These possible effects on the immune system mean that you should not use echinacea for more than 14 days at a time. Before using echinacea, talk to your doctor if you have:

  • an immune disorder such as HIV (the virus that causes AIDS)
  • multiple sclerosis
  • tuberculosis

Be sure to check the recommended dosage on the label or other packaging of the specific product you are using.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba may slightly improve the mental functioning of people who have moderate Alzheimer’s disease or moderate dementia resulting from circulation problems. Talk to your doctor before using ginkgo biloba. Although it is relatively safe, it may cause side effects and interact with other medications you are taking.

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort has been shown to be useful for mild to moderate depression, according to some studies. Talk to your doctor before using St. John’s wort; it may interact with other medications you are taking. Also talk to your Peoples pharmacist about brand quality, which can vary with this herbal product.

Essential fatty acid (EFA) supplements

Your body needs two main types of essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3. The proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diets is important. The typical Canadian diet is estimated to be much higher in omega-6 than recommended. Lowering omega-6 consumption (for example, margarines) and increasing omega-3 consumption (for example, flaxseed oil and cold-water fish oils) may help prevent heart disease. EFA supplements such as fish oil capsules taken in doses of 2–4 g per day may help:

  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce triglyceride levels
  • possibly reduce heart attacks

Talk to your doctor first — EFA supplements are generally safe but may interfere with blood thinning medications.

Glucosamine sulphate

Glucosamine sulphate, which is derived from oyster and crab shells, is a popular treatment for osteoarthritis symptoms. It is thought to work by reducing inflammation in the joint. Research suggests that you need to take the supplements for at least one month before seeing an improvement in symptoms. Glucosamine sulphate may have some positive effect in the treatment of osteoarthritis, particularly osteoarthritis of the knees. You can get glucosamine sulphate without a prescription and it is considered fairly safe.

How can I use herbal products safely?

Although herbal medicine can be a good alternative or complement to modern Western medicine, the safest, most effective health approach is generally to follow traditional methods that have been backed up by current scientific research. Your Peoples pharmacist or doctor can provide you with information on herbal products and recent research that may help you make good decisions about what, if any, herbal products might be appropriate for your specific health situation. Follow these common sense health and safety guidelines if you are thinking of using an herbal product or are already using one.

Talk to your Peoples pharmacist or doctor

Always talk to your Peoples pharmacist or doctor if you have a serious health problem and are thinking about using an herbal product. This is especially important if you are using other prescription or non-prescription medications, vitamins, or minerals. Some herbal products may react with other medications or supplements.

Watch out for allergic reactions

If you show any signs of an allergic reaction (for example a skin rash or itch), stop taking the herbal product immediately. Herbs generally do not cause serious allergic reactions. However, if you experience more severe signs of an allergic reaction (for example, difficulty breathing, a feeling of confusion or faintness, or swelling of the face), get medical help immediately.

Avoid giving to children under 12

Medicinal herbal products are generally not recommended for children under 12. If you feel your child may benefit from an herbal product, first consult with a health care professional who knows about herbal medicine and medical conditions specific to children.

What if I am pregnant or breast-feeding?

As with medications, it is prudent to generally avoid all medicinal herbal products while you are pregnant. If you are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breast-feeding, talk to your Peoples pharmacist or doctor before taking any herbal products. Always ask first if it is safe to use an herbal product for a particular medical condition. If the product has not been sufficiently studied, your Peoples pharmacist or doctor may not be able to give you a definitive answer. If you are not sure about the safety of an herbal product, it is best to avoid it while you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Where can I find out more about herbal products and supplements?

For more information about herbal products or other health issues:

  • talk to your Peoples pharmacist
  • read People First, a health magazine of practical information available free from your neighbourhood Peoples Drug Mart or Peoples Pharmacy.

Provides up-to-date information on vitamin, mineral and herbal research and products.

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