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The truth behind natural products (herbal supplements)

Sep 18, 2018


VCU Health and Massey registered dietitian Allie Farley provides nutrition tips and information on the connection between diet and cancer. Visit Allie's Diet and Nutrition blog to read more. If there is there a topic that you would like to see covered, send your requests to

VCU Health pharmacist Mandy Gatesman recently spoke at one of Massey Integrative Health's monthly events. I was able to participate and learned so much. I found the information provided to be extremely useful for the consumer, as well as for other healthcare providers. Therefore, I want to help decipher the truth regarding herbal supplements. Below you will find some important facts to keep in mind when you or a loved one may be considering natural products.

First of all, what are natural products? By definition, natural products are substances produced from marine organisms, bacteria, fungi and plants. Natural products include vitamins, minerals and probiotics. Some individuals may identify them as dietary supplements, herbals, botanicals and alternative or complementary products.

1. Natural products are NOT safer than prescription medications

  • The manufactures of natural products are not required to prove products are effective or safe. Also the risk for contamination or added harmful substances within natural products is not monitored. These claims are set forth by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) from 1994.
  • When purchasing natural products it is recommended to use items that have been tested by the following companies: Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), United States Pharmacopoeia (USP)National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and Consumer Lab. These companies help ensure quality through manufacturing processes and ensure what is stated on the label is actually what you are taking. You can easily identify if a natural product has been tested by one or more of these companies by simply look at the label. A symbol from one or more of these companies will be printed on the label as a stamp of approval if the product was reviewed.

2. You CAN use complementary therapies with conventional treatments

  • Studies have shown that there was no effect on survival rates for patients with breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer using complementary medicine (natural products, acupuncture, Thai Chi, chiropractic, etc.) with conventional treatments. However, if conventional therapy was delayed, refused or replaced with complementary medicine alone, breast cancer patients did not live as long. It is very important to always discuss any use of complementary therapies with your healthcare team.

3. All natural products CAN NOT be used safely with chemotherapy

  • Drug Interactions
  • Overlapping Side Effects
  • Effects on Immune system
  • Hormonal Influence

4. Reliable resources ARE AVAILABLE for natural product information

5. You SHOULD share all of your questions about natural products with your health care team.

  • Some useful information to share with your healthcare team before using any natural products: Name of natural product, list of ingredients, strength of ingredients, how much you are wanting to take and how often, reason for taking and where you are purchasing the product.

When using or considering to use natural products remember safety is key, use reliable resources and be truthful with your care team!

Massey does not endorse all integrative and complementary practices. We only recommend those that are known to be safe and have the potential to improve health when used alongside, and never in place of, professional medical care. All cancer patients are advised to consult with their physician before starting any integrative practice, as some may interfere with medical care.

Written by: Massey Communications Office

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