Popular Natural Health Products

Winter 2002 CSANews Issue 45  |  Posted date : Apr 12, 2007.Back to list

Living in a first world nation, we Canadians enjoy a level of health that is better than most of the world's population. We are vaccinated from birth for protection against a host of diseases, our doctors are among the best in the world and our medical system has access to the very leading edge of medical technology, facilities and methods of care. And yet, most Canadians have concerns about their health, the treatment they receive and the chemical and synthetic drugs used to treat their various ailments. Over 50% of Canadians now use natural health products in the form of traditional herbal products, vitamin and mineral supplements, traditional Chinese and other medicines and homeopathic preparations. The details of some of the most popular natural remedies and products and their medicinal benefits is information worth knowing.

Commonly know as the coneflower, Echinacea can be found growing as a wildflower mostly in the prairies, the midwest states and as far south as Texas. Of the several varieties of Echinacea the three most popular are purpurea, angustifolia and pallida. They are harvested for their roots, flowerheads, seeds or juice of the whole plant which can then be made into capsules, extracts, tinctures and tea.

Generally, the recommended dose is 900 mg to 1000 mg 3 times a day.

Echinacea is probably best known for its immune enhancing ability, but has proven very effective in many other areas as well. It is one of the primary remedies for helping the body rid itself of microbial infections. It is often effective against both bacterial and viral attacks. It is especially useful for infections of the upper respiratory tract such as laryngitis, tonsillitis and for catarrhal conditions of the nose and sinus. Echinacea seems to be most effective at bolstering the immune system when taken for short periods of time, as needed; its sustained use can limit its benefit to the immune system over time. The tincture, or decoction, may be used as a mouthwash in the treatment of pyorrhoea and gingivitis or as an external lotion to help septic sores and cuts.

Side effects are minimal; however, one study suggests Echinacea could potentially have a toxic effect on the liver and, as such, should not be used with other medications known to have this effect such as anabolic steroids, amiodarone, methotrexate, or ketoconazole.*1

GARLIC (Pic 2)
Garlic, which is known in some cultures as the "stinking rose", has been used as a food, a condiment, and for medicinal purposes for over 5000 years. There is evidence that garlic played a significant role in the diet and pharmacy of the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians, and indeed most civilizations. The earliest recorded evidence of garlic consumption dates as far back as 2900 B.C., where an inscription inside the Cheops pyramids was found. The pyramid builders were given rations of garlic to increase their stamina, build their strength, and protect them from disease.*2

The ability to enhance the immune system is the major benefit offered by garlic products. Nevertheless, garlic offers many other beneficial aspects. It has been proven effective as a blood pressure lowering agent as well as a cholesterol

reducing agent. Garlic's active ingredient, allicin is effective in helping to promote proper circulation throughout the body.

Another benefit that has been confirmed by medical research is garlic's antibiotic activity. Modern studies have repeatedly confirmed that garlic is effective against bacteria, yeasts and fungi. Garlic can be safely taken for mild, recurring or chronic infections which are not dangerous. Examples include infections of the mouth, ears, throat, colds, and especially candida.*3

Garlic can be processed into several different forms once it is dried. Evidence suggests the effectiveness of garlic for certain conditions depends on the form in which it's taken:

  • Garlic Oil Capsules contain condensed garlic oil, which is crushed from fresh garlic, and is diluted with vegetable oil. These capsules can be expected to work in the area of prevention and aid in cardiovascular strength, but are weak against infections because of the dilution of the active ingredient.

  • Odor Controlled Dried Garlic Products come in the form of tablets that are enteric coated which control the odor by releasing the allicin in the lower intestines rather than the stomach. As hinted by the name, these tablets contain dried garlic.

  • Aged Odorless Garlic Extract is made by chopping garlic and aging it in alcohol for long periods before extracting the contents. It may be sold as odourless liquid extract or heat dried to a totally odourless powder which is tableted or encapsulated. However, because this type of preparation does not appear to have garlic's main ingredients, allicin or odourless sulfides, it raises serious doubts about the medicinal value of this form of garlic supplement.
    While garlic is used widely without indication of ill health effects, there is some evidence to indicate excessive use of garlic can affect the clotting time of blood and one study recommends it not be used when taking blood thinners such as Warfarin.

    GINSENG (Pic 3)
    Ginseng root is cultivated in North America more extensively each year for use as a natural health product. Varieties range from American to Korean Red and is packaged for use in many forms. The root can be chewed raw; about a pencil's thickness and 1" long is best. As a tea, 1 teaspoon of root filaments is added to a pint of boiling water for 10 minutes; it is even recommended to chew and swallow the pulp for added benefit. Many brands of herbal supplements carry ginseng in tablet or capsule form; it is even available in the form of a jelly to be eaten. The typical tablet or capsule dosage is 200 mg to 600 mg of extract.

    You name it, and ginseng has been used to treat it. Ginseng is most commonly used to improve stamina, concentration, vigilance, and a sense of well being. Ginseng stimulates and increases endocrine activity in the body, promotes a mild increase in metabolic activity and relaxes heart and artery movements. One Korean study found that people who took ginseng had significantly lower risk of cancer; however, there has been little additional research to support this study. Another study suggested that the American form of ginseng -- taken with a meal -- lowers the after-meal increase in blood sugar.

    Uncommon -- but severe -- side effects reported include insomnia, diarrhea, vaginal bleeding, breast pain, severe headache, schizophrenia, and the sometimes-fatal Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Proponents of ginseng point out the distinct possibility that some of these adverse side effects may be caused by low-quality product that is contaminated with harmful agents. For this reason it is important to be sure to obtain ginseng from reputable sources. Ginseng can interact with some drugs according to various reports, including the popular blood thinner Coumadin.

    The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest types of tree on our planet. Traditional Chinese doctors have used its fruits and seeds for thousands of years. They used it mostly to treat asthma and chilblains (the redness, swelling, itching, and burning of the face and extremities caused by exposure to damp cold). Most Ginkgo products advise it be used daily in doses of 120 mg to 320 mg of the extract of ginkgo leaf. It usually takes four weeks of treatment for effects to be noticed.

    There is evidence that Ginkgo reduces swelling, reduces the supply of oxygen to tissues, scavenges harmful free radicals from the blood, affects metabolism, reduces blood clotting, and improves circulation in tiny blood vessels. In some European countries, it is approved as a treatment for memory impairment, dementia, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and intermittent claudication (a disease of the arteries that causes pain in the legs when moving but not when at rest).

    Most side effects are mild and soon go away. But the herb can cause possibly serious bleeding and brain seizures if too much is taken. A study of popular herbal health products advises people who are taking blood-thinning medications NOT to take Ginkgo Biloba at all. *4

    Glucosamine, also known as chitosamine, has been used mainly for the alleviation of the symptoms of arthritis. This may be partially due to reports indicating that it may be involved in the production of cartilage that is important for healthy joints. The Arthritis and Glucosamine Resource Center cites numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that provide evidence to show glucosamine helps to rehabilitate cartilage, to reduce or halt the progression of osteoarthritis, and to significantly lessen pain from arthritis without the need for conventional treatment with steroid medications that have adverse side effects.

    Early research does indicate possible health concerns associated with glucosamine use as well. Glucosamine sulfate or glucosamine hydrochloride may increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and could decrease the metabolic actions of insulin. High dosages of glucosamine may cause gastric problems, nausea , diarrhea, indigestion, and heartburn. Glucosamine should be taken with meals to help avoid these problems. Also, women who are pregnant, and women who could become pregnant should not take these supplements. They have not been studied long enough to determine their effects on a child or on a developing fetus.

    Most herbal medicinal products have not been, or are currently being, evaluated by Health Canada and/or the FDA for safety, effectiveness, or purity. All potential risks and/or advantages may not be known. Additionally, there are no regulated manufacturing standards currently in place for these compounds. There have been instances where herbal/health supplements have been sold which were contaminated with toxic metals or other drugs. Herbal/health supplements should be purchased from a reliable source to minimize the risk of contamination. It is important to always discuss any health regime you are considering, including the use of any natural health product, traditional or herbal medication with your doctor.

    Editor's Note: My family and I have used Echinacea off and on for several years, primarily to prevent a cold from developing. It has proven to be very effective for us but we take a very small amount. The small tickle in the back of your throat is usually the first sign of a cold and we immediately dig out the Echinacea. One pill or a few drops of the liquid form in apple juice usually does the trick. If symptoms are still there the next day we will take one more dose. Many studies on Echinacea have shown that the amount you use has no impact on the effects. Taking one dose and occasionally two doses at the first sign of a cold, has kept us essentially cold-free for many years.

    1. Herbal medicinals: selected clinical considerations focusing on known or potential drug-herb interactions.
    Miller LG. Department of Pharmacy Practice, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Amarillo 79121, USA.

    2. Harris, Lloyd J. The Book of Garlic. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975. pp 8-35

    3. Ciocca, Lynn. "Plant Dietary Supplemnet: Garlic." Regulatory Affairs. Vo. 5. Summer 1993. p 208.

    4. The Risk-Benefit Profile of Commonly Used Herbal Therapies: Ginkgo, St. John's Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Kava Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002, Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, FRCP(Edin.)