KUDZU. CAT'S CLAW. Kava Kava. Ginkgo biloba. Probably you've never heard of them, but if current trends continue, these and other natural remedies will soon overtake the shelf above your stove. Even before the melatonin craze struck, the market for herbs and other dietary supplements was exploding. "I've never seen the momentum for the industry as strong as it is right now," says William Watts, president of GNC Corp., which has opened a new health store nearly every day for the last three years and this year expects sales of $1 billion. The boom isn't confined to specialty stores: like amaretto-flavored coffee beans, once obscure natural health aids are now showing up in drugstores, supermarkets and discount chains.
And the hype has never been thicker. Though federal law bars explicit health claims on products sold as dietary supplements, retailers will gladly promise you the sexual potency of a young Rasputin, the energy of a hamster or the memory of the Amazing Kreskin. Varro Tyler, a Purdue University pharmacognosist (an expert in the medicinal uses of herbs), says consumers are getting more misinformation about natural remedies than they have since the turn of the century. Some products are worthless. Others are dangerous. And because they're not actively regulated, there's no simple way to know that the potion you pull from the shelf is pure or even genuine.
But that's not to say we should simply avoid them all. Though few natural tonics have been tested as rigorously as drugs, many have been used for centuries to fight infection, boost immunity and restore lost vigor. They may not cure cancer, baldness or AIDS, but some studies suggest they can relieve, or even prevent, certain troublesome health problems. A guide:
OVERHAULING THE IMMUNE system is a goal that's eluded cancer and AIDS researchers for years--yet the shelves of health-food stores are overflowing with natural remedies that claim to help. These products, derived from roots, berries, stems, flowers and leaves, are popular among AIDS patients seeking to revitalize their ravaged immune systems. No herb is likely to fulfill that hope. One called as-tragalus, however, has shown promise in restoring function to compromised immune cells taken from cancer patients, says Colorado ethnobotanist Robert McCaleb.
Some of the reputed immunity boosters do seem to lessen the symptoms of colds and flu. Probably the most extensively studied is echinacea, an extract of the purple coneflower plant. Studies published in Germany show that it reduces the severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms; it is believed to increase production of white blood cells that destroy bacteria and viruses. Because it loses effectiveness after a few weeks,the recommended course is to take echinacea for only about 10 days at the first sign of a cold. If a cold is already underway, some herbalists recommend taking echinacea along with a plant extract called goldenseal. Although there's only limited evidence that it does much good, demand is so great that the plant is becoming scarce in its native Appalachia.
The evidence for other reputed immunity boosters is even slimmer. Cat's claw, made from the bark of a thorny vine native to the Amazon rain forest, has been used by Peruvians for hundreds of years as a cure-all. Though sales have skyrocketed since the product arrived in U.S. health-food stores two years ago, its efficacy is primarily anecdotal. The same goes for the homeopathic remedy oscillococcinum, a microorganism that's specifically supposed to boost immunity to the flu. Despite its considerable popularity, pharmacognosists are skeptical. "I know enough about it not to believe in it," says Tyler.
Taking some of the nostrums in this category may actually make you sicker. Kombucha, a mixture of fungi and bacteria fermented in black tea for 10 days, is subject to contamination By other microorganisms. Last spring two Iowa women became seriously ill, one fatally, after imbibing the brew. Tyler, who likens consuming kombucha to playing Russian roulette, says, "I wouldn't drink it if you paid me."
ALAS, THERE'S NO HERBAL QUICK FIX FOR DOUBLE CHINS or love handles. But that doesn't stop hungry manufacturers. Some natural preparations work temporarily because they contain diuretics, or laxatives like senna or cascara. Others may have a small but more lasting benefit. Chromium picolinate, one of the biggest sellers, is touted because the mineral chromium is involved in the metabolism of glucose and fat. Proponents claim it burns fat, builds lean muscle--and reduces food cravings. Last week researchers from Dartmouth and George Washington University reported that chromium picolinate damaged chromosomes in hamster cells and could be carcinogenic. But Richard Anderson, a chromium expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center, notes that the researchers subjected the cells to "excessive amounts" of the compound.
Other products promising weight loss carry their own hazards. Many health enthusiasts take dried algae preparations-rich in vitamins and protein but not in fat or calories--to help them stay lean. The lakes and ponds that support algae are often polluted by agricultural runoff, but manufacturers insist their algae cultures are grown under hygienic conditions and lab-tested for purity. Among the most popular would-be weight-control products are those containing a concentrated form of the herb ma huang. This powerful central-nervous-system stimulant, comprising the dried and pow- dered leaves of a Chinese plant, is used in energy enhancers and sports nutrition formulas too. It contains ephedrine, an alkaloid also found in nasal decongestants and asthma medications like Primatene--and it's a key ingredient in the "legal high" known as Herbal Eestacy (page 67).
Ma huang does elevate metabolism and reduce appetite, but sometimes at the cost of raising blood pressure and causing a heart attack or stroke. It is especially risky when taken in combination with caffeine, or by people with cardiac, thyroid or circulatory ailments. At least a dozen states have recently passed laws or issued regulations controlling the sale of products containing ephedrine. Ohio's rule, the strictest, requires ma huang to be sold only hy licensed pharmacists, and only to people 18 or older. In the past two years. says Dr. Elizabeth Yetley, acting director of the FDA's office of special nutritionals, the agency has received reports of about 330 adverse reactions to ephedrine-containing products, primarily ma huang, including about a dozen deaths.
THEY DON'T COME IN PINK AND BLUE, BUT SUPPLEMENTS FOR THE middle-aged reproductive system are designed for each sex. For men, the two big health concerns addressed by natural products are impotence and enlarged prostate glands. These unpleasant problems are sometimes linked, because prescription medications for enlarged prostate can cause impotence as a side effect. For women, the search is on for natural remedies to treat the discomforts of PMS, menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms.
For the millions of men suffering from benign prostate enlargement, saw palmetto seems like a godsend, alleviating the symptoms of frequent and difficult urination without causing impotence. At least a dozen companies sell saw-palmetto capsules made from the berry extract of a plant native to Florida, Texas and Georgia. The extract also turns up in some potency enhancers and male-oriented multivitamin supplements. While the FDA ruled in 1990 that the product may not be labeled as a treatment for enlarged prostate, the agency acknowledges that it has some therapeutic effect. In one controlled study, men who took it got up at night to urinate an average of 1.69 times, compared with 3.12 times for those who got a placebo.
Impotence was once thought to be primarily psychological. Today doctors believe the vast majority of cases have physiological causes and can be successfully treated with medication or surgery on blocked blood vessels. But hope and desperation continue to drive sales of the several potency enhancers on the market. One is Ginkgo biloba extract. The herb, available in tablets and capsules, expands blood vessels and increases blood flow to various regions of the body, including the genitals, but is promoted primarily as an effective treatment for patients who suffer memory loss due to blocked blood vessels in the brain. Ginseng root, sold in the form of powders, extracts, teas and tablets, is also promoted for virility, but its effectiveness is unproven in humans. It can also elevate blood pressure.
Yohimbe, an herb whose active ingredients come from tree bark, causes blood engorgement of the pelvic region and does sometimes help impotence. But it carries a number of serious risks, including lowered blood pressure, kidney failure, seizures and anxiety attacks. It can be harmful to men with enlarged prostates or inflammatory STDs, and at high doses can cause fatal interactions with certain foods or drugs.
Many women find natural products an appealing alternative to prescription drugs and hormones for reproductive problems. Camomile and ginger help alleviate menstrual cramps, some claim, and fans of a Chinese herb called dong quai say it stimulates normal menstrual flow and prevents cramping. Because it may increase bleeding, it should never be taken during pregnancy.
Plant estrogens are a common ingredient in preparations like licorice root, ginseng and dandelion extract. They're often recommended for PMS and hot flashes, and women may believe that they are harmless. But they can have potent estrogenlike effects, and according to some physicians, should be used only sparingly.
CANCER TREATMENTS DON'T GROW ON TREES--NOT VERY OFTEN, anyway. Every year, scientists at the National Cancer Institute screen hundreds of botanical extracts for antitumor activity. Few ever amount to anything, yet cancer patients are understandably drawn to natural nostrums. The current favorite is shark cartilage, whose popularity grows out of stories like Joseph Cartwright's.
Cartwright, a medical technologist from Eaton Rapids, Mich., lost his right leg to a soft-tissue sarcoma in the fall of 1993. When new tumors appeared on his pelvis and lower abdomen a few months later, his oncologists told him to resign himself to death,Instead, Cartwright started taking shark cartilage, which several companies sell in capsule form, and lots of vitamins. He also changed his diet to include more fruits and vegetables. Last year, after returning from what he thought would be his last vacation in Florida, he went in for a CT scan and discovered his tumors were gone. "1 find it quite perplexing," says Dr. Cathleen Connell, his family physician. "None of the medical literature supports it."
To believers, it all makes perfect sense. They start by noting, correctly, that cartilage contains a protein that blocks the formation of blood vessels. Since tumors need vessels to sustain themselves, you wouldn't expect them to thrive in proximity to the protein. Robert Langer, a chemical engineer at MIT, confirmed that impression in the early 1980s. He induced tumors in rabbits' eyes, then showed he could stall their growth by implanting slow-release cartilage pellets next to them.
Langer says there is no scientific evidence that ingesting cartilage has any effect on tumors. But I. William Lane, an agricultural chemist in Milburn, N.J., has seized on that possibility to create a pop phenomenon. Lane's 1992 book, "Sharks Don't Get Cancer," has won a cult following. And his son Andrew now sells cartilage supplements through a company called Lane Labs. The firm is one of three preparing to test cartilage supplements formally in patients with prostate cancer and Kaposi's sarcoma. Shark cartilage isn't likely to hurt anyone (unless the shark is still attached), but barring better evidence, that's about the most you can say for it.
MODERN PHARMACEUTICALS ARE MEANT TO WORK LIKE BULlets. They rely on isolated chemicals to achieve specific effects. Herbal remedies are more like foods or vitamins. They can help alleviate certain conditions, but most users take them just to enhance their general health. Promoters may exaggerate the benefits, but that doesn't mean there is no such thing as a tonic. Scientists are finding that certain herbs can have a range of favorable effects.
Ginseng is one of the best-known tonics, and one of the least reliable. People in Asia have long used the root to improve digestion and restore strength and vigor, And many studies have found it can increase stamina, endurance and resistance to stress. But commercial ginseng products are notoriously uneven. Studies in the late 1970s found that a fourth of the products tested contained no ginseng at all. More recently, Consumer Reports sampled 10 products and found tenfold variations in potency.
Like ginseng, garlic has been touted as an antidote to just about everything bad-hemorrhoids, heart disease, tuberculosis, even vampires-and some claims are well supported. At least 28 studies have found garlic effective for reducing cholesterol; in one German experiment, subjects taking an 800-mg tablet daily saw their blood levels fall an average of 12 percent over four months. Other studies suggest that garlic can help lower blood pressure, prevent blood clots, combat infections and ward off some malignancies. In a 1989 study, National Cancer Institute researchers found that people in China who consumed at least 50 pounds of garlic, onions, shallots and chives each year suffered 40 percent less stomach cancer than those who ate less.
So, by all means, chew a clove of garlic with breakfast (or try a coated tablet that won't detonate until it reaches the intestine). But a surer route to health is to eat a wide variety of plant foods. Plain old vegetables, from spinach to tomatoes, are loaded with disease-fighting compounds that scientists are just beginning to enumerate. To make sure we get them all, some supplement makers are reducing whole foods to supplement form. These companies claim you can now get all the benefits era tomato from a mere handful of expensive capsules, If you find that hard to swallow, remember: they do still grow tomatoes.
People taking natural remedies are relying more on anecdotal claims of their effectiveness than on scientific evidence. Here's a guide to what may or may not work for you:
The following chart reads as follows: Row 1: Benefits Row 2: Drawbacks Row 3: Popular brands [a] - IMMUNE BOOSTER [b] - CANCER PREVENTION [c] - WEIGHT CONTROL [d] - TONICS [e] - REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH Algae [d,b] Nutrient-rich organisms are said to prevent cancer, curb appetite and ease the symptoms of menopause Some products may be contaminated in the lakes where they grow Sun Chlorella by YsK America, ,Blue Green Algae by Klamath, Spirulina by Earthrise Cat's claw [a,b] Rain-forest herb has long been used to treat asthma, ulcers and cancer Health benefits have not been confirmed by scientific trails Cat's Claw Root by Vidal Vital, Cat's Claw by Peruvian Rainforest Botanicals Chromium [c] Body-builders and dieters use it to burn fat; some studies show it lowers sugar levels of diabetics A recent study links chromium picolinate to chromosome damage; a possible cancer risk Chromic Fuel byTwinlab, Chromium Picolinate by Nature's Life Echinacea [a] Used by Native Americans as antiviral agent, it's said to lessen the severity of colds and flu Claims that it fights cancer and AIDS are inadequately documented Echinacea Herb by Nature's Way, Echinacea Purpurea Root by Now Foods Garlic [d] Fights bacteria, helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure; may reduce the risk of cancer Can cause upset stomachs in some Kwai by Lichtwa Pharma U. S., Kyolic by Wakunaga, Garlicin by Nature's Way Ginkgo biloba [d,e] Used for conditions associated with aging: memory, poor circulation and impotence Overdose can cause nausea or diarrhea Ginkgold by Nature's Way, Ginkgo-24 by Source Naturals Ginseng [d,a] Said to boost the immune system, increase stamina, resist stress and enhance virility Commercial formulas vary widely in potency Ginsana by Sunsource Health Products, Koregin Korean Ginseng by HealthAid Ma huang [c] Used for weight control and as an energy booster Adverse reactions range from irregular heartbeat to death; some states restrict its use Ma huang by Solaray, Ma huang Liquid Tincture by Herb Pharm Melatonin [d] Relieves insonmia and jet leg may prevent cancer and extend life Long-term effects are unknown; possible side effects: grogginess, mild depression, low sex drive Melatonin by Source Naturals, Melatonin by Twinlab, Melatonin by KAL Saw palmetto [e] Used for enlarged prostates; said to improve urinary flow and ease pain May have a sedative effect Saw Palmetto by Herb Plus, Super Saw Palmetto by Enzymatic Therapy