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A Woman's Heart, Herbal Remedies and Heart Medications - Do they mix?

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Most of us want to do the right thing. This is especially true when it comes to our heart health. We educate ourselves, evaluate risk factors and then take action! We exercise, walk, try to eat right, manage our blood pressure, take steps to lower or maintain cholesterol, and take supplements and vitamins. In other words, we work really hard to be proactive and reduce or eliminate our risk factors for heart disease. What happens when doing the right thing backfires and hurts us instead?

According to a review published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, new research indicates that some of the common herbal supplements we take (such as ginkgo biloba and St. John’s wort) may have unexpected and unwelcome side effects for those who are already taking medications for heart disease. When taken together, some drugs and herbal supplements may cause the drug to lose its potency. It’s also possible for the exact opposite to happen. Depending on the drug and herbal supplement, the effectiveness of the drug may actually be increased to an unhealthy level. According to the review, the results may lead to serious complications including arrhythmias, heart attacks, excessive bleeding and in some instances, death.

Not everyone agrees with the review. The review was referred to as a “biased, poorly written and contrived attack on herbal supplements” by the Council for Responsible Nutrition. (Reuters) They counter that herbal supplements do benefit our overall health and that many are known to benefit our heart as well.

More and more people are turning to herbal supplements to enhance their overall health. In the United States alone, more than 15 million people take some type of herbal supplement. I’m one of them. I lowered my cholesterol last year using supplements, without taking statins- so the review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, along with the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s response, is of particular interest to me. What do we do when we have two opposing viewpoints? How do we determine who is “right?” Who do we listen to?

As with the solution to any dilemma, the key is communication.

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Hi... Thanks for your post! I could not agree with you more. I'm not certain that the average person understands that some of the natural remedies (vitamins, herbs, medicinal teas) can be as effective taking a traditional drug and that you run a risk of overdose if you combine the two. Niacin is a prime example of a "natural" remedy that packs a powerful punch and caution should be exercised for persons on blood pressure medication.

I am definitely not opposed to doctors or taking medicine but have developed a preference over the years for using natural remedies if and when appropriate, or sometimes complimentary to a traditional medical protocol. I lowered my cholesterol 45 points without taking statins last year due to natural remedies and hope to lower it more this year so I can personally attest to the effectiveness of some.

I'm lucky in that I have a physician who believes in preventative health and has encouraged me to explore alternative remedies, particularly in areas where traditional medicine can offer no cure. Not all medical doctors are so open to alternative solutions. Because he's been open to alternative remedies and has encouraged me to take charge and actively participate in health decisions, we've enjoyed great communication on health issues. I go into appointments prepared with my research and questions. Because we're using a preventative approach, I'm getting healthier without taking a lot of unnecessary drugs or supplements. I try to focus on giving my body what it actually "needs."

For me personally, the bottom line is doing my homework and then ensuring I have good communication with the health care providers so we don't have any negative health surprises down the road.

February 2, 2010 - 1:41pm

This is really important material. Herbal supplements and even herbal teas, including some marketed and consumed as beverages, can be potent medicines, and like any kind of drug, they can interact with each other and with synthetic pharmaceuticals as well.

Just as a good doctor checks for drug interactions and side-effects, a good herbalist must check for interactions between herbs and between the herbs and any drugs a person is taking.

It's also important to let your doctor know what herbal supplements you use or what herbal teas you drink, as well as informing them about your diet, since drugs can interact with foods as well. Unfortunately, there's not enough research to comprehensively understand all herb/food/drug interactions--and new ones are constantly being discovered. Many potentially dangerous drug interactions (such as the family of drugs which interacts with grapefruit juice) were only discovered by accident.

I think the best solution is to be cautious and sparing in your use of medication, whether synthetic or herbal. Just because a drug has been approved by the FDA does not guarantee it's safe. If it's not medically necessary to take a drug, you should avoid taking it. And when seeking herbal supplements or medicinal teas, try to limit yourself to using herbs that have been firmly established as safe for long-term use, and consult a doctor and herbalist when in doubt.

February 2, 2010 - 12:50pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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