Vitamins and Herbs – Risks and Benefits

Most doctors have little if any training in vitamins and supplements

except as they relate to their specialty.

My field of neurology concerns itself with metabolic and nutritional diseases more than most areas of expertise, and I have an interest in several vitamins because of research related to major causes of mortality in the United States.

During the period I taught at a cancer center, I was concerned that research protocols may be misleading as these supplements were not accounted for, however since that time in the mid 90’s, I’m glad that public interest has pushed this field into the fore.  Major cancer centers now have active research in Complementary and Integrative Medicine (CAM) because there are risks and benefits, and some have significant herb-drug interactions as discussed below.

Check your vitamins and supplements for toxicity

Because of the growing science on toxicity, usefulness, and drug interactions, if you use vitamins, review each one carefully with your physician and with the websites listed in the column on your right. Some “vitamins” are simply brand names that have over 20 different vitamins, minerals and various ingredients.  This means you must review each one for current research benefits and risks.

At special risk for vitamin deficiencies are those who have highly restricted diets, abdominal resection, intestinal conditions, colitis, Celiac Disease, gastric bypass, HIV, or the elderly.

Pregnant women have special needs that are essential not only for their own health but to reduce the risk of neurological defects in the fetus.  It is essential in their case to work closely with their obstetrician, especially if morning sickness prevents them from taking their daily supplement.


One of the best resources I have found is Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Herbs and Botanicals, also linked on the column at right.  Their website is updated frequently with an excellent review of the literature.  It is hosted by a senior physician who has specialized in the field for decades and is actively involved in research at their center as well as NIH.

MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Complementary/Integrative Medicine Education Resources website andColumbia University’s Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are two others, but there are other resources on the web and books that are excellent.

Recipe for Rum Soaked Salmon with Apple Ginger Puree is found here.


Vitamin D has become a major research topic in recent years.  It may play a more important role than any listed below.   I have written separately on it and its controversy in greater detail.  Please refer to the last post by scrolling down.

Fish Oil

Omega 3 Fish Oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for health yet cannot be made by the body.  Unless you eat several servings per week of fatty fish or wild salmon, not farmed salmon, it is one of the most important supplements that any adult of any age can take.  They are needed for building cell membranes in the brain but our body does not make them.   Fish oil helps your lipid profile by reducing triglycerides as much as 45%.  It reduces platelet clotting, lowers risk of heart attack and cardiac arrhythmia, and is an important anti-inflammatory reducing pain for many particularly those with arthritis.  One of thebest references on Omega 3 Fatty Acids is by  Dr. Frank Sacks, Professor of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health.   He mentions high doses “are used to treat depression. New studies are identifying potential benefits for a wide range of conditions including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and other autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.”

One high quality fish oil, Lovaza, has been approved by the FDA and is prescription only.  Fish oil and cod liver oil available over the counter should be checked for adequate dosages of EPA and DHA that will vary with your needs as determined by your lipid profile, and should be purified to remove cholesterol, dioxin, PCB’s and other pesticides.

Co-Enzyme Q10 is also called CoQ10.  CoQ10 is present in every cell of the body which is why it is also called ubiquinone.  It is important in the electron transport chain to produce intracellular energy.

Statins deplete CoQ10. Vitaline’s CoQ10 product has been used in NIH funded trials for cardiovascular, neurological and brain disorders. Two mitochondrial disorders have been shown to benefit from Co-Q10: migraine and Parkinsons Disease.

My preferred manufacturer is Vitaline because of their research with NIH which requires that they validate and verify dosages.  Their website discusses other advantages and gives guidance on dosages that have shown benefit for various conditions. They offer a discount of 25% if you request scheduled delivery every 3 months.  Use the code code DEF25.  Their product is in the form of wafers that are about the size of a quarter and are very easy to break into 2 or 4 with your hands.

Vitamin B supplements in the elderly may help reduce the risk of dementia and B12 deficiency may result in neurological conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, dementia, hematologic and psychiatric disorders, Subacute Combined Degeneration of spinal cord & brain, increased fracture risk, and may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.  A good B complex vitamin is not likely to harm and may benefit.    The best source of all is food:  leafy green vegetables, beans and peas.

Thiamine (Vitamin B1) in high doses of 300 mg per day may reduce kidney disease in type 2 diabetes and may prevent early diabetic cardiomyopathy (heart disease).  As many as 70% to 90% of people with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2, are thiamine deficient.  The research is still a little early to draw firm conclusions.  It is being done by Charity Diabetes UK which finds that thiamine works by helping protect cells against the harmful effects of the high blood sugar levels.”

Vitamin A is associated with a 45% risk of hip fracture.  There are four major adverse effects of high levels: birth defects, liver abnormalities, reduced bone mineral density that may result in osteoporosis, and central nervous system disorders.

Vitamin E may actually increase mortality and there are significant risks to its use including increased risk of some cancers.  Several studies were reviewed by one of the foremost science writers, Jane Brody, in the New York Times on March 23, 2009.  It does not reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and there is no evidence that it slows the progression of macular degeneration.  In thePhysicians’ Health Study II it has been shown to actually increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke since it decreases the clotting tendency of blood.

Vitamin C was recently shown to markedly increase the growth of cancers. It’s healthy for them too.  It blunts the effect of cancer drugs by as much as 30 to 70% depending upon the drug tested.

Zinc may prevent the absorption of copper which is necessary for the brain and spinal cord thus resulting in progressive neurological conditions.  Herb-drug interaction reduces the bioavailability of some antibiotics, tetracycline and fluoroquinolones.  Intake of 100-300 mg/day may result in chronic toxicity including copper deficiency, depressed immune function, headache, chills, fever, and fatigue.  It concentrates in the prostate and consumption of more than 100 mg per day may increase risk of prostate cancer.

It may be useful for tinnitus and for short term use to reduce symptoms of the common cold when used topically or in lozenges


Don’t forget seeds, beans and whole grains that help digestion and keep the system moving!

This is a very brief summary of a few of the more commonly used herbs.  Please refer to Memorial Sloan Kettering Herbs and Botanicals website for detailed information on risks and benefits.

Arnica – a topical anti-inflammatory may help sprains and osteoarthritis.

Aloe Vera – apply immediately after sunburn or burning the skin to prevent blister formation

Chamomile – calming sedative, may use for intestinal colic or gas

Cat’s Claw – anti-inflammatory activity may be caused by the inhibition of TNF-alpha production.  It may be useful for refractory oral ulcers of unknown etiology in persons with HIV/AIDS that have not responded to other known remedies.

Echinacea may shorten the duration of common cold, useful in sinusitis, and respiratory infections.  Because of the lack of standardization of various products, I recommend a high quality organic liquid product by HerbPharm. Avoid use in autoimmune conditions, Multiple Sclerosis, HIV/AIDS.  “Echinacea was shown to stimulate phagocytosis, enhance mobility of leukocytes, stimulate TNF and interleukin 1 secretion from macrophages and lymphocytes, and improve respiratory activity… both in vitro and in vivo.”

Goldenseal is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial with activity against pathogens such enterotoxigenic E. coli and V. cholera that may be useful for bacterial sinusitis and respiratory infections.   Warning it may prolong the QTc interval in persons with heart disease or those on methadone and it is contraindicated in persons with hypertension.  A high quality organic liquid product is made by HerbPharm.

Medicinal Marijuana is a vast subject. I would be happy to schedule time to discuss its medical use with you. Refer here for some of the known research and patient information.

Red Yeast Rice, a naturally occurring statin, the same as Lovastatin, often used in China.   Make sure your doctor knows this and monitors liver function.  Statins may cause severe muscle and joint pain that may potentially lead to rhabdomyolysis (sudden death of muscles), kidney failure, vasculitis, lupus-like syndrome, and many other symptoms, however most people tolerate them without side effects and they have dramatically reduced the incidence of heart attacks and stroke.  They may also reduce the risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s type dementia.

Turmuric (Curcumin) – may alleviate irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.  There is a suggestion of improved cognitive performance from epidemiology studies but studies show no benefit for Alzheimer’s Disease.  Avoid use if you have gallstones.  It may inhibit the action of some chemotherapy drugs, such as used for breast cancer, but may be beneficial for certain cancers and other chemotherapy drugs.

Wheat grass– a natural source of vitamins and minerals (Chlorophyll, Vitamins A, C, E, K and B-complex, Iron, Calcium, Magnesium,  Selenium,  Amino acids); may have antioxidant effects.

Willow Bark – contains salicin, the precursor of aspirin.


The material on this site is for informational purposes only.

It is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified health care provider.

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One Response to “Vitamins and Herbs – Risks and Benefits”

  1. Diana Smith Says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful and informative site. I forwarded the Snake Oil visual representation to family and several friends who then forwarded it to others.

    I have found the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database as well as Consumer Labs, which randomly checks supplements for adulteration, contamination, and labeling accuracy to be excellent resources for information on supplements. Unfortunately, unlike Sloan Kettering, they charge a fee for service. CAMline is one of the free services I like.

    Cat’s Claw, Goldenseal and Chamomile potently inhibit the liver enzyme CYP3A4, and may affect other liver enzymes as well. Unfortunately, there is little published information on the effect of herbs on different liver enzymes and interactions with other herbs and medications. I was surprised to discover that herbal teas and bioflavonoids added to vitamin C could also interact with medications. Unfortunately, this was a personal discovery that was caught after the damage had been done.

    I still take CoQ10 and Fish Oil among other supplements; thank you for your recommendations and for taking the time to share your research here.

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