5 Risky Herbal Supplements To Avoid

A increasing amount of foods, cosmetics, cleaning products, and over-the-counter treatments advertise themselves as “all natural." This is one of the reasons why herbal medicine is so popular. Is natural, however, necessarily synonymous with safety?

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K 22nd Nov 2021.

5 Risky Herbal Supplements To Avoid

The use of plants as medication is known as herbal medicine. Medicinal plants may be taken by mouth or applied to the skin and come in a variety of forms, including ointments, oils, capsules, tablets, and teas.

Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA like prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, despite the fact that many individuals take them as medication. As a result, certain potentially harmful plants may be found in supermarkets, on the internet, and even in local coffee shops. You do so at your own risk. Before taking any herb, do your research and consult with your health-care professionals, including doctors, pharmacists, and anyone else engaged in your medical treatment.

Risky Herbs

“Some people believe herbal supplements work but are harmless," Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, an expert in medical herbs and nutritional supplements and a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine tells WedMD. “However, if it behaves like a drug in the body, it may have a negative effect," she adds.

“The majority of herbs we use in the United States are quite harmless," says Fugh-Berman, “although some are harmful and others are if not taken carefully."

According to Cydney McQueen, PharmD, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy, “anything that functions like a medicine is going to have some hazards."

The most typical concerns for herbs that represent a significant risk include liver and kidney damage, as well as medication interactions.

Here are some examples of herbs that may have risks you aren’t aware of. This isn’t a comprehensive list of every potentially dangerous plant or supplement; rather, it demonstrates that some really dangerous chemicals are readily accessible over the counter. So, before you consume any herbs, be sure to consult with your doctor.

St. John’s Wort

According to Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) may help with mild to severe depression. However, there is insufficient evidence that it aids in the treatment of serious depression.

After all, depression isn’t something that can be treated on one’s own. “It isn’t just a normal cold. If someone wishes to take St. John’s wort for depression, it must still be monitored by a doctor, “McQueen tells WebMD about it.

One important cause for this is medication interactions. Many additional medicines may be rendered ineffective by St. John’s wort. Women using St. John’s wort plus birth control pills have had unexpected pregnancies, while those using St. John’s wort with anti-rejection medicines after a transplant have had organ rejection.

“First discuss any interactions with your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any prescription medicine and are interested in attempting a course of St. John’s wort for mild to moderate depression," advises Weil, whose line of dietary supplements includes a product containing St. John’s wort.


Kava (Piper methysticum) may help with anxiety and has been shown to work as well as pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medications in certain cases. However, it might take up to eight weeks to see results. According to the National Institutes of Health, kava has helped women suffering anxiety throughout menopause in as little as one week.

The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, advise individuals not to use kava since it may cause severe disease, liver damage, and death, even when taken in small amounts for a short period. The usage of kava has resulted in liver transplants and death within one to three months. Weil tells WebMD that “heavy kava usage has been connected to nerve damage and skin abnormalities."

Kava may make depression worse, and it’s not healthy for pregnant or nursing women. Because the plant and alcohol have comparable effects, they should not be mixed.

Kava should not be used with a variety of prescription medications. Alprazolam (Xanax) and sedatives are the two medications with the most potential for drug interactions.

In people with healthy livers, Weil only advises kava for three to four weeks. “I do not suggest kava to persons who are at risk for or have liver disease, who routinely use alcohol, or who take medicines with known liver side effects, such as statins or acetaminophen."

Kava has been ruled out by other specialists. “I like to employ plants with a low risk-to-benefit ratio, which is no longer the case with kava," Fugh-Berman explains.


Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) has not been shown to be effective in any of the recommended uses. According to the National Institutes of Health, it was previously used to induce abortion, but the high dosages necessary for this might kill the mother or cause irreparable liver and kidney damage.

Pennyroyal oil is deemed hazardous for anybody at any level, according to the National Institutes of Health, and it is uncertain if the tea is safe.

“It’s a mint, and the amount of poison in a tea isn’t that high, but I wouldn’t try it. Choose spearmint. Why should you choose the liver-toxic mint?" According to Fugh-Berman.

Pennyroyal was added to the FDA’s toxic plant database in 1997 and is now available online in a variety of forms, including oil.


Weil tells WebMD that comfrey (Symphytum officinale) has a “well-deserved reputation for repairing wounded tissues" such as wounds, bruises, sprains, and bone fractures, as well as the swelling and inflammation that often accompany them. “Comfrey should never be taken by mouth," Weil warns, because of the potential of severe liver and perhaps lung damage.

In 2001, the FDA recommended that comfrey products be taken off the market. Nonetheless, comfrey is widely available.

“When I informed them it was a liver-toxic plant, they remarked, ‘Oh, we sell a lot of it,'" said the owner of a nearby coffee shop. According to Fugh-Berman.

Comfrey should be used for wounds that don’t heal well, such as open bedsores and diabetic ulcers, according to Weil. The United States Pharmacopeia, a scientific body that sets standards for nutritional supplements, recommends against using comfrey on injured skin because toxins that might damage the liver may be absorbed.


Chaparral (Larrea divaricata, Larrea tridentata) is reported to help with pain, inflammation, and irritation of the skin. Weil tells WebMD that there is little proof supporting this. Chaparral has also been promoted as a cancer-fighting plant, although the American Cancer Society claims that there is no data to support this claim.

Chaparral, which may be purchased in a variety of forms online, has been included in the FDA’s poisonous plant database since 1997 due to the danger of severe — and in some instances irreparable — liver damage.

Chaparral may cause dangerous drug interactions with various prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, including blood thinners, anti-inflammatory treatments including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, diabetic medicines, and some antidepressants, according to the American Cancer Society.

How to Choose A Safe Supplement?

According to Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab, which assesses the safety and quality of dietary supplements, these are procedures that everyone should follow before taking any herb.

Make sure you start your homework. Find out the following information before beginning any herbal medicine:

  • Is it secure?
  • Is it effective?
  • What is the most effective dosage?
  • What portion of the plant does the job? (the root, the stem, and the leaf)

Talk to your health care team: Inform everyone involved in your health care, both medical and mental, that you’re thinking about using a herbal supplement. Examine if the supplement is safe and effective in general, as well as for you. Make sure your doctor is aware of any medical issues you have and any prescription or over-the-counter drugs you’re taking. Don’t wait for them to approach you.

Get a quality product: Weil recommends looking at the label for the plant’s common and Latin names, as well as the plant component utilised. You won’t profit from pills created from the stem if the root is the most effective.

Keep an eye out for a quality seal. “Of all the supplements, herbals are the most likely to contain pollutants," Cooperman adds. The USP seal (US Pharmacopeia), the NSF seal (National Sanitation Foundation), and Cooperman’s Consumer Lab’s CL seal are the three primary quality seals.

Each of these seals certifies that the product’s components match the label and that any pollutants present are below acceptable limits. USP and NSF ensure that the product complies with the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices. CL holds goods to California state standards, which are more severe than the FDA’s, according to Cooperman. Supplements will also break down in the body, according to USP and CL.

McQueen advises choosing supplements manufactured by large corporations. The most likely to adhere to quality standards are major retail brands or makers of FDA-regulated medications.

Test tablets: “Herbals are often powders in capsules, so you don’t have to worry," Cooperman adds, “but be sure tablets will break apart and release substances in your body." Allow 45 minutes for the pill to dissolve in body-temperature water. “It’s likely doing the same thing in your body if it remains intact," Cooperman adds.

As the world revolves forward in the field of health and wellness, there is always a fine line that we need to follow and adhere when it comes to our health and body. Nothing is more important than having good health which can lead us to a happier life. Despite the false advertisements about pills and supplements, erring on the side of caution can prove beneficial in order to preserve our health.


  1. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/features/risky-herbal-supplements 
  2. Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, associate professor, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.
  3. Cydney E. McQueen, PharmD, associate professor, School of Pharmacy, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City.
  4. Andrew Weil, MD, director, Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, Tucson, Ariz.
  5. Tod Cooperman, MD, president, ConsumerLab, White Plains, N.Y.
  6. National Institutes of Health: “Herbs and Supplements: MedlinePlus."
  7. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health: “Health Topics A-Z."
  8. American Cancer Society: “Herbs, Vitamins and Minerals."
  9. FDA: “Poisonous Plant Database."

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