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The mHealth App Cutting Through the Herbal Supplement Hype


The NIH’s HerbList provides users with research-backed facts on popular herbs.

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Since herbs and herbal supplements have become popular alternative health remedies, confusion surrounding these products seems to have increased. In some cases, patients believe they have found natural panaceas, while others see poison.

So, to clear the noise and deliver research-supported information about herbs to the masses, the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has launched a mobile health (mHealth) app. HerbList is designed to offer patients, providers, and others with information on the “safety and effectiveness” of more than 50 herbs and herbal products with health-oriented marketing. It went live this week.

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“People are considering herbs and herbal supplements for various reasons, and it is important that they are aware of what the research says about safety and effectiveness,” said the NCCIH’s acting director, David Shurtleff, PhD, in a statement.

The NIH based the app on its similar online repository, a series of webpages called Herbs at a Glance. HerbList, then, essentially comprises a number of fact sheets regarding safety issues, adverse effects, herb-drug interactions, and links to more information. But the app is more readily available to engaged users, and it also enables them to store their favorite herb pages even when offline.

The app, available in the Apple App Store and the Google Play shop, covers everything from turmeric and ginkgo to kava and acai.

Of course, the development of HerbList places the NIH and its NCCIH deeper into a conversation that has at times grown inflammatory. Steadfast supporters of herbs and herbal products have crafted conspiracy theories regarding how the government, leaders in medicine, and researchers analyze these supplements. Accusers have claimed that the establishment aims to suppress potential cures and steer people toward mainstream medicine.

At the same time, some have sworn off all herbs, wary of their safety and efficacy.

But the hazards of herbs and herbal products are clear. St. John’s Wort, for instance, has been shown to “interact in dangerous, sometimes life-threatening ways” with any number of medications, according to the NIH. Before kratom was illegalized, the herbal supplement caused addiction and at least 36 deaths, according to reports.

Whether the NIH’s mHealth app will rise above conjecture and conspiracy theory is unclear. But the information it contains is based on rigorous scientific research, and that’s more than many websites covering herbs can claim.

Still, HerbList is no cure-all for bad information. Time and again, scam artists have made fraudulent claims about the power of herbs and herbal products. And in some cases, experts have found that these so-called supplements consisted of nothing more than pulverized rice and weeds. So although HerbList can tell users what to expect from the herb, it can’t determine whether they are about to ingest that particular product or something more nefarious or downright ineffective.

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