Recently the New York Times’ Well-Health had an article on turmeric, which has been touted as having anti-inflammatory properties and aids digestion. The April issue of Consumer Reports contains two articles-Does Tea Tree Oil Work? and Does Aromatherapy Using Essential Oils Work?
Even though turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries according to the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) as well as the New York Times article there isn’t sufficient research to make too many claims.
Any number of newspaper and popular magazines will list the power of rosemary, sage, garlic, ginger and other herbal supplements (also called botanicals), but like turmeric, Tea Tree Oil and aromatherapy is there valid research to back it up?
The NCCIH’s Herbs at a Glance provides fact sheets on 41 different herbs. Overwhelmingly this is an area where there’s a lot of anecdotal information but minimal research. What is helpful about these handouts is that they provide information about possible side effects, drug interactions, etc.
Often when research on a popular topic appears in the medical journals, the media will pick this up and draw their own conclusions. It's helpful to have a basic understanding of what is a good study when reading such articles. A quick way to understand if it's a valid study is sample size. A study with 500 people is going to yield more reliable findings than one with 50. Were an experimental group (participants receive treatment) and a control group (participants didn’t receive treatment) used? Learn more about this topic at Know the Science.
Herbs and spices are incredible food flavor boosters, and so dietitians and nutritionists highly recommend them. If you want to explore the use of “botanicals” for medicinal purposes, consider the following:
• Check Herbs at a Glance to see what research has been done, if there are contraindications and what type of side effects could happen. For example St. John’s Wort can interfere with many medications including antidepressants, birth control, Digoxin etc.
• Don't exceed recommended dosages or take for longer than recommended.
• Keep track of what you take and write down how it effects you.
• Be cautious about supplements manufactured outside the United States. Herbal products from some European countries are highly regulated and standardized. But toxic ingredients and prescription drugs have been found in supplements manufactured elsewhere, particularly China, India and Mexico.
• Check alerts and advisories. The FDA and NCCAM maintain lists of supplements that are under regulatory review or that have been reported to cause adverse effects. Check their websites periodically for updates.
• Keep your medical provider informed about any herb, spice, or supplement that you are taking or have tried.