CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Herbal Supplements Don't Mix with Surgery

Many Americans take herbal supplements to boost their health, but they may not realize that continuing to do so prior to surgery could have life-threatening results.

23 Jan 2005, Los Angeles -

James D. Adams, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology at the USC School of Pharmacy, says that a great number of commonly used herbal supplements interact with anesthetics and other drugs used during surgery. Those interactions can trigger potentially disastrous surgical complications, including excessive bleeding, an inability to breathe and racing pulse rates.

"For example, people use garlic capsules to control blood pressure and cholesterol, but taking them before surgery can cause serious bleeding, and even deaths have been reported," Adams says.

Other herbal supplements that can cause bleeding problems include ginkgo biloba, ginseng and ipriflavone.

The herbal sedatives valerian and kava can both interact with anesthetics and interfere with breathing.

Adams also urges caution with St. John's wort, commonly used to treat mild depression.

"St. John's wort has a huge number of interactions and problems. It can render birth control pills ineffective and, if taken with serotonin reuptake inhibitors, it can cause death. In surgery, it can interact with certain drugs to promote blood clots," he says.

Adams stresses a special note of warning for anyone still using ephedra, also called ma huang, an herbal stimulant used for weight loss that increases the heart rate and blood pressure. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra in early 2004 because it was linked to significant adverse health effects, including heart attack and stroke.

Adams says that to be safe, the key is for patients to stop taking all herbal supplements at least a week before surgery. He says, "Patients should always discuss with their doctors which herbal supplement they are using, especially before surgery or when adding any new drug to their regimen."

Contact: Sarah Huoh
Media Relations Representative
USC Health Sciences
Phone: (323) 442-2830

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