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Herbs and dietary supplements in Gynecology

Herbs and dietary supplements are commonly used by consumers to treat several conditions. In Gynecology, women commonly use herbs and supplements to treat conditions like premenstrual syndrome (PMS), period pains, infertility, menopausal symptoms and even in pregnancy. A multitude of remedies are available, but questions often arise about scientific evidence and whether such products are medically beneficial.

Several herbs and supplements however have some scientific proof of medical benefits. Black cohosh relieves menopausal symptoms and has some benefits in PMS and period pains. Plant-based estrogens (called Phytoestrogens) are found in soybeans and red clover, and are thought to reduce menopausal symptoms. Rigorous scientific proof of benefit is lacking, and long-term use has led to concerns on increased risks of estrogen-dependent cancers. Herbs like St John’s wort and kava kava have been used for a long time in treating menopausal symptoms. They may adversely interfere with effects of other prescription medicines and cause liver disease. Other menopausal supplements include evening primrose oil, dong quai, wild yam and Vitamin E.

There are many products marketed to relieve period cramps. The ones with some scientific proof include Vitamins B1, B6 and E; Magnesium, Omega-3 fatty acids, and Calcium supplements. Fertility supplements include Vitamin C, Chasteberry and Fertility blend (a combination of green tea extracts, vitamins, folate, magnesium, zinc and selenium). Vitamin C may be beneficial due to its anti-oxidant properties, while the other products may improve ovulation and fertilization. Large scientific studies are however lacking to make solid recommendations.

The use of herbs and supplements to treat Gynecologic disease should be based on some scientific proof of benefit, have low side effects burden and the least potential to adversely interact with other medications. Independent testing laboratories can be used to verify reputable manufacturers of herbs and supplements. Random product checks can verify content, good manufacturing practices, product dissolution in the human body and lack of contaminants. Thus products displaying some verification symbol from reputed authorities give a degree of confidence in their claims of beneficial effects.

The sale of supplements is a multi-million dollar industry, with women being the majority of users of such products. Herbs and supplements are perceived as natural, with fewer side effects compared to prescription medicines. There is limited regulation for dietary supplements, allowing marketing to consumers without necessarily providing proof of claimed benefits. A product can only be removed from the market if it is shown to pose unreasonable risk of injury or illness to consumers through post marketing surveillance.

Caution must therefore be exercised when selecting herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Look for some evidence of proof of benefit, and chose products which display authentic labelling from regulatory authorities. If only scant product detail is available, all you might be buying and ingesting is hot air.

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