A seemingly endless array of herbal supplements fills the shelves of drugstores, supermarkets, health-food stores and even gas-station quick marts. The appetite for these "alternative cures" has created a $5.2 billion market for everything from aloe vera to Zingiber officinale (that's ginger).
If any of that money's coming out of your wallet, you owe it to yourself to tap into another herbal trend: Reliable research into botanicals (that's another name for herbal supplements) that provides scientific evidence about which are safe, smart and effective -- and which are dumb or even dangerous duds. Both types show up on the latest list of top sellers. You want to be sure you've got a winner.
Best picks? According to our favorite herbal info resource -- the Cleveland Clinic Wellness website's Supplement Review -- the following popular herbs are generally safe and have some scientific backing as effective remedies:
» Turmeric (the yellow in yellow mustard) for easing inflammation of ulcerative colitis in conjunction with standard medications.
» Aloe vera cream for healing mild skin burns (it may work better than some prescription preparations).
» Saw palmetto for benign prostatic hyperplasia; this herb seems to block hormones that makes a guys' glands swell.
» Garlic to help control blood pressure and cholesterol, and slow down hardening of the arteries. Results are modest, but it could help you stay healthy.
Thinking about popping an herbal product or wondering whether one you already take is worth continuing?
Check the science. These days, you can get the latest, impartial 411 on an herb before you buy it or try it by logging on to some terrific websites that review and boil down the latest research findings. We already mentioned our favorite, The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Supplement Review. Two others are Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Integrative Medicine website and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
» Talk with your doctor. If you plan to take anything for more than three days -- and this applies to herbs, other supplements and over-the-counter drugs, check with your doctor first. Why? If you've self-diagnosed a health problem, you probably should get medical confirmation before you treat it. In addition, lots of herbs interact negatively with medications -- including some you may take now or might take later. Your doc may also suggest a more effective, better-studied or less-expensive way to reach your health goal. Case in point: You could take a red rice yeast supplement to lower high LDL cholesterol, or you could choose a statin drug that's covered by your health insurance and get the same active ingredient (yup, exactly the same!) and the same results, while parting with less cash (up to $140 dollars less each month).
» Look for "USP" and "Made in the USA." Choose products that have a gold, black and green emblem on the label that says "Verified Dietary Supplement -- USP." It means that the supplement maker meets quality standards set by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (an independent, nonprofit scientific group) and that the product really contains the ingredients listed on the label at the potency and levels promised, doesn't contain harmful levels of other compounds and was made under safe conditions. We also like supplements made in the U.S. and are wary of products coming from overseas after a string of Food and Drug Administration warnings about contamination in imported remedies (everything from recognized drugs being added in without appearing on the label to toxic substances being substituted for benign ones).
» Stop before surgery. You should quit some herbs and EPA-containing brands of fish oil-- not DHA though -- at least three days before scheduled surgery. And stay off them for as long as your doctor says. Many herbs can affect blood clotting (especially the " family, including garlic, ginger, gingko and ginseng) and can interact with drugs you may be given before, during and after surgery.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information, go to realage.com.