Women Cautioned Against Using Herbal Supplements

Not always free of side effects:
herbal supplements

"Although there is no direct evidence that any herbal medicines can increase or decrease breast cancer risk, some herbs can have estrogen-like actions and thus raise concern about their long-term use," said Barbour Warren, a research associate with the Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors (BCERF).

According to Warren, 23 percent of middle-aged women in the United States use herbal medicines, often to treat premenstrual or menopausal symptoms and premenstrual syndrome, to aid in breastfeeding or to decrease breast cancer risk.

Warren said that researchers used to think that estrogen-like compounds from plants, called phytoestrogens, could possibly block the effect of estrogen in the body and perhaps reduce breast cancer risk. However, recent clinical studies have shown that women on diets high in soy phytoestrogens experience greater cell multiplication in the breast. There is concern over this effect since it could be a preliminary step in cancer formation by leading to the outgrowth of latent cancer cells.

In looking at studies on the use of supplements for menopause, Warren reports that the seven clinical trials using black cohosh were largely flawed but might suggest some effectiveness.

However, little evidence exists for beneficial effects of red clover, and no benefit was reported for ginseng, evening primrose oil or dong quai. In the 16 studies that looked at soy supplements, twice as many studies reported no effect as those that reported a beneficial effect, and although kava kava has been reported to have some benefit, reports of serious side effects have led to it being banned for sale in the United States and elsewhere.

"Some herbal medicines show promise for the treatment of problems with menstruation and menopause and other conditions that affect women," said Warren. "It is unfortunate that their quality and safety are not better controlled."

MEDICA.de; Source: Cornell University