Herbal Products and Supplements
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What are herbal health products and supplements?
A botanical is a plant or part of a plant that people use to try to stay healthy, or to treat health conditions and illnesses. An herbal health product or supplement (also called a botanical product) is a type of Natural Health Product (NHP) that contains one or more herbs.
Herbal health products and supplements are available in many forms, including in tea bags, capsules, tablets, liquids, and powders. Examples of common herbal health products and supplements include black cohosh, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, saw palmetto, and St. John’s wort.
Are herbal health products and supplements safe?
Herbs aren’t necessarily safer than the ingredients in over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines just because they come from nature. Although herbal health products and supplements are advertised as “natural,” their ingredients aren’t necessarily natural to the human body. They may have strong effects on your body. They can also cause unpleasant health effects (also called adverse effects). Researchers have studied the benefits and risks of some herbal health products and supplements, but others need to be studied more.
Are herbal health products and supplements regulated by the Canada Food and Drug Act?
All of the OTC and prescription medicines you can buy have to be “approved” as safe and effective by Health Canada. As of 2004, all natural health products sold in Canada must meet the Natural Health Products Regulations requirements. Health Canada will assess the product and determine if it is safe, effective and of high quality before issuing a licence.
Health Canada can take herbal health products or supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe (for example, if they cause serious adverse effects) or are found to contain ingredients that aren’t listed on the label (for example, harmful substances).
Is it safe to take herbal health products and supplements if I have health problems?
Herbal health products and supplements may not be safe if you have certain health problems, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. Children and older adults also may be at increased risk of adverse effects from these products because their bodies process the ingredients differently.
If you are going to have surgery, tell your healthcare provider about any herbal health products and supplements you use. These products can cause problems with surgery, including bleeding problems with anesthesia. You should stop using herbal health products or supplements at least two weeks before surgery, or sooner if your healthcare provider recommends it.
Whether you have a health problem or not, it is always best to contact your healthcare provider before taking any herbal health product or supplement.
Can herbal health products or supplements change the way OTC or prescription medicines work?
Yes. Herbal health products or supplements can affect the way the body processes drugs. When this happens, your medicine may not work the way it should. For example, St. John’s wort reduces the amount of certain drugs absorbed by the body. When this happens, the drugs may not be absorbed at high enough levels to help the health conditions for which they are prescribed. This can cause serious problems.
If you take any OTC or prescription medicines, contact your healthcare provider before taking any type of herbal health product or supplement.
How can I find out what is in herbal health products and supplements?
By law, manufacturers of herbal health products and supplements are responsible for making sure their labels are accurate and truthful. Health Canada requires the following information on labels:
- Name of the product or supplement
- Product licence number
- Complete list of ingredients
- Amount of product or supplement in the container or package
- Recommended use (including purpose or health claim, route of administration and dose)
- Any cautionary statements, warnings, contra-indications and possible alternative reactions associated with the product
- Any special storage conditions
Avoid any herbal health product or supplement that does not list this information.
Health Canada maintains the Licensed Natural Health Products Database. It is an online database that gives information for natural health products that have been issued a product licence by Health Canada. You can look up supplements by brand name, medicinal ingredient, or manufacturer.
How can I use herbal health products or supplements safely?
Don’t take any herbal health products or supplements without contacting your healthcare provider first. If you do use an herbal health product or supplement, read the directions on the label to learn how much to take and how often to take it. You should never take more than the recommended amount. If you have any questions about how much to take, ask your healthcare provider.
The Health Canada website for Natural and Non-prescription Health Products is a good source of information about herbal health products and supplements.
How can I safely store herbal health products and supplements?
Store all herbal health products and supplements up and away, out of reach and sight of young children. Do no store them in a place that is hot and humid (for example, a bathroom or bathroom cabinet). Keeping these products in a cool, dry place will help keep them from becoming less effective before their expiration date.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
This content was updated with general underwriting support from NatureMade®. Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Botanical Dietary Supplements. Accessed August 11, 2015
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplements. Accessed August 11, 2015
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know. Accessed August 11, 2015
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide: Chapter III. Net Quantity of Contents. Accessed August 11, 2015
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements. Accessed August 11, 2015