Herbs as ‘Health Foods’: Are They Worth the Hype?

By Sydney Janssen 

Many herbs today are advertised for their supposed health benefits, but it turns out there has been little research done to support these claims. In fact, herbal supplements are not closely monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and dosage levels are not regulated. It is safe to take the doses commonly used, but excessive amounts may be toxic. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is a part of the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services and delves into the science behind these herbs.

Photo courtesy of the Catalyst Archives

A section of their website, “Herbs at a Glance,” has a list of many of the most popular herbs, and each page explains what the herb is, how much we know about it, its health effects, if it’s safe, and more. These herbs include peppermint, turmeric, lavender, green tea, ginger, garlic, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, cinnamon, chamomile, and açai, among many others.

Peppermint, for example, is quite popular. The herb is available in tea, as capsules, as a liquid extract, and in the original form as a leaf. It is commonly used as a dietary supplement to treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome, digestive problems, the common cold, headaches, and more. Some also apply peppermint to the skin to treat headaches, muscle aches, itching, and more. 

Even though peppermint can be found in almost any store and is commonly believed to have these health benefits, few studies have been conducted on it, and this research mostly focuses on IBS. Even more worrying, the results of these studies are also somewhat inconclusive. Some studies suggest that oil-coated peppermint capsules may improve symptoms, and a few conclude that when peppermint is combined with caraway oil, it might help with digestion — however, this product has not been tested and is not available within the U.S. There is little evidence to show that it helps with headaches when used topically, and insufficient evidence to determine its effectiveness against nausea or the common cold. Overall, there is not enough evidence to conclusively state that peppermint leaf is helpful for any condition, and the oil might only help with some individuals. Regarding the safety of peppermint, potential side effects include allergic reactions and heartburn, as well as rashes and irritation on the skin.

Turmeric is another common spice and is often used as a dietary supplement to reduce inflammation, help with arthritis, improve stomach, skin, liver and gallbladder problems, treat cancer, and more. It has been used as a medicine in South Asia to combat breathing problems, fatigue, and other issues. 

The effects of turmeric on various health conditions have been researched, and established literature includes studies conducted on humans. However, many of the resulting claims aren’t strongly supported by science. For example, the curcuminoids found in turmeric are said to help reduce inflammation, but this is not strongly backed. These studies only showed that the curcuminoids might reduce the number of heart attacks bypass patients had after surgery, control knee pain from arthritis in a similar way to Ibuprofen, and reduce skin irritation in patients who have undergone radiation treatment for breast cancer. Turmeric is generally considered safe, although high doses or long-term usage may lead to gastrointestinal problems.

So, next time you see an advertisement or claim on the health effects of a common herb, make sure you think twice about how accurate this information is, and if you’re not certain, be sure to check out the NCCIH website.  


One thought on “Herbs as ‘Health Foods’: Are They Worth the Hype?

  1. One thing to note about turmeric is that there are challenges with absorption, and forms that are hydro-soluble absorb better.

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