Holistic health is big business in the US, in large part because it claims to promote health benefits. And just like prescription drugs, herbal medications can be of particular concern to women, in part because more women take herbal remedies.
According to the National Health Interview Survey conducted by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 33% of American adults used complementary health approaches in 2012. At the top of the list are natural products like herbal supplements in various forms.
The appeal of plant-based medicine in particular is not unfounded: “While some people may dismiss herbal remedies as quackery, the use of botanicals is well rooted in medical practice,” says Stacey Chillemi, an herbal educator and author of The Complete Herbal Guide and National Herbs for Common Conditions. “More than a quarter of all modern drugs used today contain active ingredients derived from plants.”
Still, natural does not automatically mean safe. These potions and remedies “can have significant, even fatal interactions with prescription drugs,” says Ian Musgrave, PhD, a molecular pharmacologist and researcher at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Women have adverse reactions to supplements “more often than men simply because more women use them over all,” he says.
A 2015 study that Musgrave co-authored found that women more frequently reported negative reactions to St. John’s Wort, a supplement that some research suggests may help ease depression.
1. Birth Control
St. John’s Wort can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, says Musgrove. Other herbs, including vitex, dong quai, black cohosh and red clover may help manage symptoms related to menstruation and menopause, for example, because they can influence levels of female hormones like estrogen, says Chillemi. For that same reason, they should generally be avoided by women using hormonal birth control methods because the herbs may make them less effective.
“The FDA urges pregnant women not to take any herbal products without talking to their health care provider first,” says Chillemi, and they should also seek guidance from an experienced herbalist or other professional familiar with herbal medicine. “Herbs may contain substances that can cause miscarriage, premature birth, uterine contractions or injury to the fetus,” she says.
Certain culinary herbs, such as rosemary, garlic, sage, ginger and turmeric are safe to use in foods in the amounts normally used for cooking, but might be unsafe in large, concentrated doses during pregnancy. Sprinkling herbs in your cooking is still safe. Other herbs used medicinally, however, are likely to be unsafe to use during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or if at higher risk of hormone-related cancers: saw palmetto, dong quai and goldenseal (only a risk for pregnancy and breastfeeding)
Herbs that influence hormones may also be helpful in managing problems related to menopause. “Black cohosh, red clover, chaste-tree berry, dong quai, evening primrose, ginkgo, ginseng and licorice are among the most popular herbs for women experiencing problems with menopause,” says Chillemi. But again, because of these effects, they could also interfere with hormone therapy. “Some of these herbs have powerful hormone-like effects, and women should not assume they are harmless,” she says. Make sure to alert your doctor if you are taking herbal supplements and you are discussing adding hormone therapy.
Herbal supplements can be helpful for a range of symptoms, but it is important for consumers to do their homework on the benefits and risks before taking them. “Very carefully check reliable sites for adverse effect information, as this is often omitted, highly abbreviated or hard to find on many seller websites,” advises Musgrave.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health offers a comprehensive resource of safety information and other data on various supplements. “Always tell your medical practitioner of your herbal medicine use to ensure you are not taking them with drugs that could potentially interact, and so that side effects can be monitored,” he adds.
- 7 Supplement Risks Every Woman Should Know (Everyday Health)
- Herbal Supplements May Not Be As Safe As They Sound (US News & World Report)
- Herbal Remedies, Supplements and Teas During Pregnancy (What to Expect)
Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC is an Atlanta-based journalist, psychotherapist & health coach