What could be safer than natural herbal remedies to soothe your body and ease your mind?
In some cases, these natural, over-the-counter cures could be deadly, said Connie Crawley, a food, nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
Incidents of illness, permanent damage and even death have been traced to the use of some of these products.
"To protect yourself from fraud and possible bad side effects," Crawley said, "don't use any herbal medicines. Certainly never substitute an herb for a medicine or treatment your doctor has recommended."
That's strong advice, directed particularly at anyone who is pregnant or has chronic and serious health problems, Crawley said.
Her concern is based on developments since Congress passed the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994.
The act created a new category for dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and other over-the-counter products that are nearly immune to the rules of the Federal Drug Administration.
The herbal-remedies business is worth more than $1.5 billion in current sales, with an estimated annual growth rate of 15 percent.
According to the November issue of Consumer Reports, the new law allows these products wide privileges. These unregulated products can go to your store's shelves with no testing for efficacy, and there is little or no research to back up a product's claims.
Companies don't have to prove their products are safe. Supplements need not be manufactured according to any standards, and FDA approval isn't needed for package or marketing claims.
"A company doesn't have to prove its herbs are safe and effective before they put the product on the market," Crawley said. "As long as a company doesn't claim its product will cure or control a specific disease, it can say anything on the label."
Some products don't even contain the herb listed on the label, Crawley said. Even if the herbs are in the products, individual plants of the same species can differ tremendously in potency. Growing conditions, storage and handling also affect potency.
According to a position paper from the National Council Against Health Fraud, "Consumers are being denied the most fundamental information and assurances of quality. It is precisely because herbs are a source of potent drugs that responsible people are concerned about the manner in which herbal remedies are being marketed."
Eventually the FDA must specify minimal quality controls, including protections from filth, methods for determining potency and overall quality assurance.
The products must contain what they claim on the label. Rules will cover packaging, expiration dates and lot numbers to trace problems.
But those standards are at least two years away.
Crawley listed some advice for people interested in using these products:
* Don't assume that herbal remedies are safe just because they're natural. They can have powerful effects on the mind and body, so use caution.
* Don't take medicinal herbs if you're pregnant, attempting to become pregnant or breast-feeding a baby. Don't give herbs to infants or children.
* Don't take large quantities of any herbal preparation.
* Don't take any medicinal herb on a prolonged daily basis.
* Buy only preparations that identify plants on the label, and become familiar with potentially dangerous herbs.
* If you're taking medications, don't use medicinal herbs without checking with your doctor.
* Beware of exaggerated claims on labels. Don't trust your health to unqualified practitioners who use unregulated titles like herbalist, herb doctor or herbologist.