The Village Doctor, Benjamin G. Newman, MD 207-963-2001

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Proper Use of Herbs and Supplements

by Benjamin G. Newman, MD

Publish date: Wed, Sep 1st, 2010

I am a strong proponent of the use of herbs and supplements. If taken for the right indications, they can be useful and effective in treating many conditions with fewer side effects than prescribed medication.

The use of alternative medicines in America continues to be extensive. It is estimated that over half of the adult population uses at least one form of alternative treatment. Because of the extensive use of these products, there is a growing concern about the potential adverse reactions when taken with prescribed medications. Many patients do not consider natural medicines to be 'drugs' or 'medicines,' and therefore don't tell their health care professional when asked about the medicines they are taking. This concern has a life and death importance particularly when the patient is about to have surgery. If you're a surgical candidate, you need to know that 'natural' does not always mean 'harmless.' Herbs have active ingredients, much like over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs that can affect how your body functions.

There are many herbs and supplements that can increase bleeding, increase or decrease blood pressure, increase or lower blood sugar and can produce depressant effects on the central nervous system. If your healthcare practitioner is unaware of the supplements you are taking and is not expecting complications, you may be in a dire situation without knowing it. I, like most physicians, always ask my patients about any supplements and over-the-counter medications they are taking. Conservatively, I would say 30% of patients forget to mention they are taking herbs or supplements.

To avoid any potentially catastrophic surgical outcomes, here is a list of herbs and supplements with their potential side effects:

May increase blood pressure to dangerous limits:

  • Ephedra
  • Guarana
  • Bitter orange
  • Green tea extracts

May decrease blood pressure:

  • L-arginine
  • Andrographis
  • Coenzyme Q10

May decrease blood sugar:

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid
  • American Ginseng
  • Panax Ginseng
  • Vanadium

May cause central nervous system depression:

  • Kava
  • Valerian
  • Lavender
  • Melatonin
  • Lemon balm
  • L-tryptophan
  • Passionflower
  • German Camomile

May increase bleeding:

  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Ginkgo
  • Black tea
  • Green tea
  • Vitamin E
  • Fenugreek
  • Dong Quai
  • Chondroitin
  • Glucosamine
  • Saw Palmetto
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In general, I ask my patients to stop taking their supplements at least two weeks before surgery or any procedure that can cause bleeding, especially when general anesthesia is given.

It is very important to notify your healthcare practitioner before taking any supplement as you may be advised against taking a particular supplement due to a preexisting medical condition or possible drug interaction. The advice you receive could save your life.