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Are Herbal Supplements Harmful to Your Health?

This week the New York Times featured an opinion piece called Skip the Supplements in which the authors encourage us to think twice about taking herbal supplements. Their rationale is not that herbs are bad, per se. The real problem is the way that supplements are manufactured and regulated.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements as drugs even though many have pharmacological effects. They aren’t tested for safety or efficacy, many are mislabeled, and companies can get away without following the minimal standards of manufacturing set forth by the FDA. That leaves manufacturers with a lot of room for error, whether they are intentionally cutting pure product with bad-for-you fillers or unwittingly using raw materials loaded with heavy metals and other toxins. Hmmm, this sounds eerily like the cosmetics industry, which is “regulated” by the Food and Drug Administration even though the FDA’s rules about cosmetics barely exist and the ones that do aren’t readily enforced.

Here are some alarming facts from the article:

“In 2003, researchers tested “ayurvedic” remedies from health food stores throughout Boston. They found that 20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.”

“In 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.”

“Last summer, vitamins and minerals made by Purity First Health Products in Farmingdale, N.Y., were found to contain two powerful anabolic steroids. Some of the women who took them developed masculinizing symptoms like lower voices and fewer menstrual periods.”

“Last month, researchers in Ontario found that popular herbal products like those labeled St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba often contained completely different herbs or contaminants, some of which could be quite dangerous.”

Those are some terrifying facts! With cosmetics, I get it—companies often green wash their products, but I think most people intuitively know you’re not getting 100% pure plant-based goodness in that bottle of Aveeno at your local drugstore, even if it does contain some shiitake. But with minerals and herbs, it somehow feels more fraudulent—it’s supposed to be St. John’s Wort and only St. John’s Wort!

So what’s the solution for those who want to benefit from the botanical goodness of herbs? The article calls for manufacturers to provide a third-party written guarantee that the product is made under the FDA’s “good manufacturing practice” (G.M.P.) conditions, as well as a Certificate of Analysis (C.O.A.) assuring that what is written on the label is what’s in the bottle.

Not all manufacturers have unethical production practices. Just like with clean makeup and skincare products, this will require digging in, doing some research, and finding companies that deserve your trust. That said, my initial internet search for herbal supplement companies that supply the C.O.A. was pretty disappointing. I found plenty of companies that state they do obtain a Certificate of Analysis for their raw materials, but I saw no actual evidence of the certificates. Why not make the C.O.A. accessible through the web site? Transparency is key, especially when it comes to our health.

Are you skeptical of herbal supplements? Do you have a trusted source?

Maybe it was the picklebacks my boyfriend made me drink last night at the Super Bowl party,* or the fact that my horoscope told me it was a good time for a detox,** but I woke up today contemplating cleanses.

Truth be told, I’m not a fan. I’m of the (well-researched) mind that our bodies, properly treated, do a very good job ridding themselves of “toxins,” and that good nutrition means eating three squares and snacking—not starving yourself with expensive juices, raw foods, or packets of mysterious powder.

It’s not to say I don’t like expensive juice and raw food, and back when Alexandra and I lived together in our little bachelorette pad in Montreal, we would occasionally do juice cleanses with our two other roommates. The four of us would loll about reading magazines and talking about how hungry we were, and when the three days were up, we’d feast on vegetarian food. I did it because they were doing it, but I’ve not done one since, and that was more than 10 years ago.

Forgetting for a second that some cleanses are downright dangerous, am I missing something here?

It’s not that I don’t get the impulse. Like finally donating that pile of jeans you don’t wear or deleting exes from your phone, the urge to purge can be a healthy one. It’s a way of saying to yourself I’m done with that, it’s time to start fresh. I’m not really in that headspace right now, but since we’ve been talking a lot about what it takes for us to feel our best, I’m going to start my version of a cleanse: Committing to doing the things that make me feel my best—and actively avoiding the crap that doesn’t.

Because let’s get cheesy for a second: It’s not just about feeling your best, but also acting your best out there in the world. For me to do my best work, to be kind and patient with myself and others, to write blog posts that don’t suck and be present and happy in my day to day life, I need to take care of number one. Probably, I’m thinking, so do you.

So here’s my cleanse idea: A plant-based diet with a little fish (but definitely not this one), lemon water, lots of sleep, consistent meditation (tips, as always, are here), dark chocolate, as well as three whole pieces of fruit, daily—but also I’m going to do things that I find fun—because that’s a big part of it, too. I’m going to do this for a week, maybe two, and see what happens.

See what I did there? I came up with a cleanse where I get to eat a lot and have a ball. What about you? Do you do cleanses?
Do you like them? Tell, tell.

* If you have never had one and you do drink alcohol, do yourself a favor and get on that. Also, he didn’t really make me.

** Obviously this is the real reason.

image via

6

Banana Peels Can Purify Your Water!

A little off topic but in a word, bananas: Researchers have found that minced banana peels can quickly remove heavy metals from water!

In a new study published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, which I read while eating brown rice toast with sliced banana (no fooling!), researchers showed that the peels are a remarkably effective low-tech, low-cost solution to purifying rivers and streams that have been contaminated with metals. I’m going to assume it could work in your home, too!

A purification apparatus made of banana peels can be used up to 11 times without losing its metal-binding properties, they note. The team adds that banana peels are very attractive as water purifiers because of their low cost and because they don’t have to be chemically modified in order to work.

Mmmhmm. You see folks? Nature really does have (almost) all the answers.

Dolk’s Banana Therapy (cc) from Flickr user Imagesniper