Do supplements work?

  • Health
  • Sunday, 09 Nov 2003

It's a good idea to know exactly what you're taking and how it works, whatever form your health supplements may take.

NATURAL remedies have been receiving lots of attention, especially when the preference is towards healing through alternative medicines. For those who already know the differences between allopathic and complementary therapy, they should have an understanding of the benefits of herbal and other natural healing products. 

For those who are not familiar with the terms, allopathic refers to contemporary or Western medicine, while complementary remedies offer the holistic approach towards strengthening the body systems before combating the diseases. Usually one experiences an instant relief from allopathic treatments, while there is slower recovery with the latter. In fact, most naturopathic doctors believe that the primary goal in healing should be to let the body do its work unimpeded.  

Which supplements

A visit to a pharmacy, a Chinese medicine shop or nutritional outlet will reveal a wide range of herbal products: various brand names from different manufacturers, local and overseas. A closer look at these products will show that they comprise single herbs as well as combinations of several herbs.  

Different forms of these herbs (tablets, capsules, teas, liquid and even sprays) will also be available. And the herbs will be presented in the form of either standardised extracts or whole plant formulas, in different weights. So, how does one choose herbal supplements that are of good quality? 

Health claims 

Health claims and nutritional labelling in America are governed by the Food and Drug Administration, while the traditional medicine is monitored by a subsidiary called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).  

The 1994 DSHEA stated that the only allowed claims for herbs and traditional medicines are structural and functional claims. For example, “Ginkgo biloba is used to improve microcirculation to the brain” is allowed, but not “Ginkgo biloba could treat Alzheimer’s diseases”.  

Therefore, consumers would only get a general indication about the benefits of the supplements on the labels. However, the situation is a little bit different here in Malaysia.  

A list of unapproved indications for traditional medicines is provided by the Ministry of Heath in the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB) guidelines. Health supplements are allowed to be sold locally so long as the manufacturers and retailers do not make overzealous claims their ability to cure and treat diseases. 

Whole plant, or standardised extract

Some herbalists and naturopathic practitioners prefer whole plant herbs for the potential synergy among various compounds in the plant that have yet to be identified. However, this might not be true for all plants, as some herbs may need highly concentrated portions to be beneficial. For example, the active constituents found in ginkgo leaves are only obtained when an average ratio of 50 parts of leaves to one part of extract (50:1) is applied. Anything less than that and one may not reap all the benefits from the plant. Yet, we must also remember the old adage that “plenty may not be good”. So, having a higher weight but less active ingredients are as good as giving a baby more water than milk powder. All we actually need is to have the right amount of active constituents from the accurate part of the plant, as well as the correct species of plant. 

International herbal guidelines 

The German Commission E monographs initiated a guideline for the approved and unapproved herbs used for their therapeutic actions. There are some herbal extracts that work when their active constituents meet certain levels and these extracts are known as standardised extracts.  

Usually these potentially beneficial levels are backed by numerous scientific and clinical studies collected over the years. Among some of the commonly standardised extracts are: 

Cola nut – 1.5% methylxanthine; 

Ginkgo biloba – 22-27% flavone glycosides, 5-7% terpene lactones, 2.6-3.2% bilobalide; Ginseng – 1.5% ginsenosides; 

Milk thistle – 70% silymarin. 

Be critical, your health deserves the best

Firstly, of course, consumers have to be educated about the herbs they intend to take. Research can be done via the Internet or by reading herbal text books. Consumers can also seek the advice of health professionals, usually pharmacists, herbalists or nutritionists. Whatever one’s source of information, the most important thing is to check that it is a qualified one. 

Quality and safety 

Consumers have a right to expect manufacturers to have taken steps to ensure the safety and efficacy of their products. As there are currently no regulations imposed as to the level of active ingredients in herbal supplements, manufacturers who have international accreditations, like the ISO, are preferred as they are usually more proactive in their quality and safety measures. Having an in-house quality control laboratory will also provide better assurance of the products manufactured. 

Take control of your health 

It should always remembered that whatever is ingested will eventually affect one body system or other. The liver, which is the body’s major detoxification organ, can tolerate only up to 80% of deterioration! So, when we are really sick, our body systems could be in an advanced state of deterioration. Therefore, make sure you are taking charge of your own health. Be informed and aware of the latest health issues as this will help you maintain good health! 

The above article is contributed by Thomson panel of health professionals. For more information e-mail The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely that of the author’s. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information. 

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