Diabetes Forecast

The Pros and Cons of Herbs and Supplements

By Jeff Sistrunk ,

Bleary-eyed college students and jet-lagged corporate executives alike turn to the Asian herb ginseng for an energy boost. But ginseng devotees may be unaware that, when taken with insulin, the herb can cause hypoglycemia (low blood glucose).

This is the kind of unforeseen risk that Laura Shane-McWhorter, PharmD, BCPS, FASCP, CDE, BC-ADM, spotlights in her new book, The American Diabetes Association Guide to Herbs & Nutritional Supplements. Dietary supplements "have many chemical components and act like drugs," McWhorter says, "so they can cause side effects when interacting with other drugs or a [disease or illness]."

For years, McWhorter, a professor at the University of Utah's College of Pharmacy, has fielded physicians' questions about finding good data on herbs and supplements. "A lot of their patients started using certain [natural] products without knowing what they actually were, which can be dangerous," she says.

In her consumer guide, McWhorter describes both the risks and benefits of natural products, citing the latest research. For instance, one study showed that Saint-John's-wort, a plant used successfully to treat depression, can decrease the effectiveness of blood thinners and drugs used to combat high blood pressure and cholesterol. That interaction could have serious consequences for people with diabetes. But fish oil, a popular additive, has been proved to boost cardiovascular health. Using herbs and supplements well, she says, is a matter of weighing their pros and cons in relation to your diabetes medication regimen.

Readers should consult their doctors to make sure a supplement would fit in their diabetes management plan. "Patients need to remember that these products are in fact supplements and aren't intended to replace conventional diabetes treatments," McWhorter says. "The purpose of this book is to provide good, reliable information to patients to improve their overall health, and to establish a dialogue with their [health care] providers."



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