Tips for Choosing Herbs and Supplements

Herbs, supplements and other nontraditional treatments have become increasingly popular. According to a study published in the February 2002 issue of Diabetes Care, people with diabetes are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicines than other healthy individuals. Are you tempted to try any? Here is a list of tips for you to consider before you do.

Consider Your Individual Needs

Just because your friends take certain herbs does not mean that they are right for you. Herbs, vitamins and other supplements have active ingredients that can cause side effects, especially for people with diabetes. One example is St. John’s wort. Its usefulness in treating depression, a common side effect of diabetes, is well known. But St. John’s wort can reduce the effectiveness of a variety of prescription drugs, including oral contraceptives and cholesterol-lowering medications (statins). Discuss your needs and supplement options with your healthcare providers.

Consult With Your Team

In the past, it was common for doctors to respond to a patient’s use of supplements with shock or ridicule. Today, many make a considerable effort to learn about the safety and side effects of alternative therapies and medicines. Some even use complementary medicines to enhance their own health. Review the items you wish to try with those who know your medical condition best. And remember to stop most supplements two or three weeks prior to surgery. Many, such as garlic, can affect your ability to heal.

Examine the Ingredients

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), signed by President Clinton in 1994, makes the manufacturer responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe and that any claims are not false or misleading. But this does not guarantee that the contents of a bottle will reflect what is written on the label. is an independent testing laboratory that tests this very thing. They evaluate assorted brands of supplements and herbs and provide information regarding those that meet or fail their high standards.

Stay Informed

There are many books available that discuss herbs, supplements, their safety, side effects and uses. James A. Duke, PhD, and Andrew Weil, MD, are two of the many respected authors who have written on these subjects. Additional reliable sources include “The Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) for Herbal Medicines,” “The PDR for Nutritional Supplements” and “’s Guide to Buying Vitamins and Supplements: What’s Really in the Bottle?” Many medical newsletters cover these topics on occasion. The Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter and Environmental Nutrition are two examples.

Shop Wisely

Supplements, herbal preparations and vitamins are sold in a variety of places—local pharmacies, neighborhood health food stores, groceries, via mail order, and on the Internet. Prices vary considerably from brand to brand. Some claim to contain naturally derived ingredients, while others state that their synthetic contents are equally as effective. But a higher priced item is not necessarily better. “Caveat emptor”—let the buyer beware. Research the supplement that you wish to purchase and don’t pay for what you don’t need.