Herbs & Surgery
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | July 11, 2001

"Study finds herbs, surgery don't mix" - CNN

"Natural Disasters?" - ABC News

"Herbs and surgery often don't mix" - NBC News

These were the headlines in the television and Internet media during the past 24 hours. Is this another case of "science by press conference" or are the warnings justified? A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1) examined the scientific literature to determine the potential effects of popular herbal preparations on patients undergoing surgery. The authors concluded that there was little information about how herbal preparations like garlic, ginkgo biloba, and echinacea could affect surgical patients, and what has been published suggests that people should proceed with caution.

More than a caution on herbs, this study is about communication. The authors' recommendations were directed at physicians, not the general public. Two studies they examined concluded that patients don't tell their physicians they are taking food supplements, either because they don't think it's important or they are afraid their physician will admonish them. The authors advised physicians to ask surgical patients about all food supplements they take, including herbal preparations. Further, they advised physicians to become familiar with herbal preparations and their potential interactions with all facets of surgery, including anesthesiology, blood coagulation, and wound healing. Those are excellent recommendations for physicians and all healthcare providers.

As for the remainder of the article, herbs were presented fairly. They recommend that more research be done to examine the specific effects of herbal preparations on surgical conditions such as anesthesiology and the surgical procedure itself. That makes good sense.

However the implication is that every over-the-counter (OTC) product has been examined under those same conditions. We ran a MEDLINE search on acetaminophen, a very popular OTC analgesic, and pre-surgery care, and found nothing. There were no studies that examined patient use of acetaminophen before surgery. The patient information given with every bottle of acetaminophen does not state that you should inform your surgeon or anesthesiologist that you have been using this product.

The point is this: news organizations, if not the authors themselves, seem to be imposing standards on the herbal industry that haven't been met by the pharmaceutical industry. It may be that the authors assume that a patient will tell a physician about every OTC they are taking for allergies, pain, and other conditions, but the research isn't clear that they do that for OTC any more than they do for food supplements. Or they may be assuming that physicians ask about OTC drugs, but that wasn't stated in the article.

So what should you do? Understand that just because herbs are considered natural, it doesn't mean that they are harmless. They obviously are powerful or they wouldn't have the potential to help you when used properly; they also have the potential to harm you if abuse them. This study should not be interpreted as the big, bad medical profession trying to bully you into giving up the herbs that you've found work for you. What they are saying is "Hey-keep us informed! I'm going to be cutting you open and I need as much information I can get to make sure that the procedure goes safely." That's a very reasonable request and one that we at Better Life Unlimited encourage.

We have always recommended that you make your physician your healthcare partner. This study confirms that advice. Keep the communication lines open and keep your doctor in the loop! When you see your physician and any other specialists, provide a list of everything you're taking: prescriptions, OTC products, and supplements. That will help them to help you achieve optimal health.

Then just to be safe, stash a list of everything you're taking (and any other important medical information such as allergies, use of contact lenses, pacemakers, and so on) behind your driver's license or other ID in case of emergency, and make sure your family members know it's there in case they're asked. We hope you never need it, but it's better to be prepared.


  1. Ang-Lee, MK et al. Herbal Medicines and Perioperative Care. JAMA 286(2): 208-216. 2001.
BBBOnLine Reliability Seal © 2011 Better Life Unlimited™
A division of Better Life Institute © (BLI, Inc.)
 Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy
SecurityMetrics Credit Card Safe