Herbs can harm, especially when taken with traditional drugs.
April 17, 2000 (San Francisco) -- When 71-year-old Doris Sargent couldn't sleep last year, she turned to her grocery store for something safe and natural: St. John's wort. "I'd heard it was the poor man's Prozac," she says.
Because Sargent had had a kidney transplant a few years earlier, she asked her kidney specialist about the St. John's wort and several other supplements she took, just to be safe. He indicated he didn't know much about them, but added that if she thought they helped, they probably couldn't hurt.
By Erinn Bucklan
After all the buildup and pressure leading up to the holidays, who doesn’t feel like they need a break during the last week of the year? “This time of year is stressful because of the combination of heightened activity level and heightened expectations,” says James Campbell Quick, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington. “For those who have not made time for peace in their lives, this can be a really challenging season.”
Researchers have long suspected that herbs and prescription drugs can interact, but a recent study has found that mixing the two can cause more harm than anyone had realized. In the February 12 issue of Lancet, Swiss researchers reported that St. John's wort, a top-selling herb used to treat depression and other maladies, seemed to interfere with the metabolism of cyclosporine, an anti-rejection drug given to transplant patients.
In the same issue of Lancet, St. John's wort was found to reduce the effectiveness of the AIDS drug indinavir, according to researchers at the Clinical Pharmacokinetics Research Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Apparently St. John's wort can influence the body's ability to break down or flush critical drugs out of the body quickly, so that people with AIDS -- and perhaps those with transplanted organs, like Sargent -- get only half their needed dose.
"No one has ever considered these herbal drugs to have an effect. They think, 'Oh, it's natural, it must be safe.' But there aren't many substances that do only good things," says Stephen Piscitelli, PharmD, who led the indinavir study.
What's more, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now warns that St. John's wort may interfere with the body's metabolism of prescription drugs used to treat a host of common ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and certain cancers. Estrogen and Viagra may also be affected.
The news stunned patients like Sargent, who is among at least 15 million Americans who take dietary supplements along with prescription drugs, according to a survey published in the November 11, 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More significantly, the findings have also jump-started new research on the interactions between supplements and prescription drugs -- an area that until now has received little scrutiny.