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Senior Correspondent

Q. I’m a geezer and I believe in herbal products because they’re natural and I think you should tell your readers how wonderful they are.

I get a kick out of people who are big on “natural” and “organic.” Poison ivy is natural and organic. So is cobra venom.

You have to be very careful when you use herbal health products and dietary supplements, especially if you are a senior. Always consult a doctor before taking any of these products, which I like to label “alternatives.”

These products may not be safe if you have cancer, an enlarged prostate gland, high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, epilepsy, Parkinson disease, psychiatric issues, or problems with clotting blood, your immune system, liver or thyroid. You should be especially cautious about these products if you are taking drugs that treat any of these health problems.

Alternatives can interfere with the way your body should process medicine. For example, you may not absorb enough of the medicine that you need.

These products can cause difficulties during surgery, including bleeding and problems with anesthesia. You should stop using herbal products at least two weeks before surgery.

In the United States, alternatives are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as foods. Therefore, they are not held to the same standards as medicines whose manufacturers must prove they are safe and effective.
These products can also contain ingredients that aren’t on the label. That bottle of natural elixir on the shelf could contain plant pollen, steroids, arsenic, lead and pesticides.

The active ingredients in many of these products are unknown. In fact, because alternatives are not held to tough standards, you may even consume more or less of the supplement than what the label tells you you’re taking.
Well, you ask, these products must be standardized in some way, right? The fact is that, in the United States, there is no legal definition of “standardized” for supplements.

There are hundreds of alternatives on the shelves that claim they will help you feel better in a variety of ways. However, the advertising claims usually aren’t backed by reliable information.

Some of the most popular alternatives include chondroitin, echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, glucosamine, kava, melatonin, black cohosh, saw palmetto and St. John’s wort.

These alternatives may have additional effects that the manufacturers don’t always tell you about. Here are some side effects you should know about:

  • If you are sensitive to aspirin, don’t take black cohosh because it contains salicylates. Black cohosh is used for menopausal symptoms. Aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid is a drug in the family of salicylates.
  • If you have a shellfish allergy, you may also be allergic to glucosamine. Glucosamine is taken for arthritis.
  • Don’t drink alcohol if you take kava products. Kava can increase the effects of alcohol. Kava is used to calm your nerves.

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