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New insights into herbal supplements

The past decade has seen a sharp rise in the use of alternative treatments and research is under way all over the globe to scientifically document the effects of hundreds of herbs and other dietary supplements. However, until now, there was// no easy access to current, comprehensive information about these agents.

Experts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City have now created a new website which will provide up-to-date information on the safety and efficacy of 135 of the most popular herbal remedies and dietary supplements, from bee pollen to shark cartilage and skullcap to milk thistle. The site lists 135 supplements in alphabetical order by scientific name, while the common name is given below. For example, Allium Satvium is listed in A and its common name - garlic - is given below. The brand names under which each herb is sold, its purported uses , its chemical properties and known details of how the herb works on the body is included in the website. A summary and critique of all the known published medical studies, instances of adverse reactions, and warnings about potentially dangerous drug interactions together with a link to the original research material on each herb is also included in the site.

Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, who started the site says this website was developed in order to provide comprehensive and readily accessible information about dietary supplements and herbs as they are powerful, biologically active products that have important biological effects which can be useful at times and harmful under other circumstances. For instance, the element zinc has shown promise in reducing the duration of a cold and St. John's wort can help in easing depression while it is also true that other herbs like ginseng can cause low blood sugar in diabetics and valerian and kava can lessen the effectiveness of prescription drugs by interfering with the liver's ability to process the medicines. She also added that one must be very cautious with the purchase and use of dietary supplements as they are not regulated by any government body, which means anyone can put anything on a bottle and put it on a health food store shelf. She added that this is a serious problem as very often it is found that the herbal remedies have virtually none of what is assumed to be the active ingredient, some have much higher levels and some are contaminated with other substances.

Casilleth concluded that this website will be continuously updated while plans are under way for the launch of a second Web site that will be less technical and more easily understood by patients.


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