Millions of people rely on herbal remedies to treat a variety of ailments or conditions. Although the efficacy of herbal remedies is not often backed by federal monitoring organizations, many users of herbal products find them highly effective. Though these remedies come from nature, not all herbal medicines are harmless. They may have side effects or interact with mainstream medications. It is important for consumers to weigh the risks.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 65 and 80 percent of the world's population rely on alternative medicine as their primary form of healthcare, while only 10 to 30 percent of people use conventional medicine like the products that are sold over-the-counter and at pharmacies. The American Medical Association has urged its members to better educate themselves on alternative medicines. In fact, almost one-third of American medical schools, including Harvard University, Yale University, Georgetown University, and John's Hopkins University, now offer coursework in alternative medicines.

Perhaps because of their popularity and relative ease of purchase, herbal remedies are surrounded in misinformation. Many people believe that, because herbs are not chemical drugs, this makes them completely safe. Yet, some herbal remedies do have adverse effects, as do vitamin and mineral supplements. In order to be treated by both alternative and conventional medicines, individuals need to educate themselves about the truths and myths surrounding herbal products.

* Herbal compounds vary in strength. While many conventional medicines are carefully produced and tested to ensure consistent potency, some herbal remedies are not. The strength of one herbal product may not be consistent from pill to pill or between brands. It can be difficult to maintain consistency with products that come from nature. Just as grapes may produce a different tasting wine year after year, herbs may not always produce the same potency.

* There are side effects. Natural doesn't always mean safe. Keep in mind that illegal drugs like marijuana and opium come from natural sources, and those drugs are far from completely safe. Even the tobacco in cigarettes is from a naturally growing plant, and smoking is responsible for the majority of lung cancer cases every year. Ginseng, ginkgo biloba and even garlic supplements can thin the blood and make one bleed more freely. Certain vitamins in high levels can be toxic. Kava kava, taken for anxiety, can sometimes cause liver damage. 

* Herbs are not always regulated. In the United States, herbs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They don't oversee the production, sale and use of herbal products. That means that the safety and usefulness of these remedies may not be adequately documented.

*Herbs and conventional medicines are not always compatible. While herbal treatment can be used in combination with traditional medicines, a medical doctor should be consulted before taking medications in tandem. Complications can arise from the interaction between conventional medicines and herbal medications. Herbs may reduce or increase the effects of certain medications that can result in organ damage or even fatality. St. John's Wort, for example, which is used to improve mood, may reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and also changes the plasma concentrations of omeprazole, a GERD medication.

* Herbal remedies may delay doctor visits, putting men and women at risk. Thanks to the relative ease with which herbal remedies can be purchased, people may put off seeing a doctor when they aren't feeling well, preferring to try an herbal medication first. This could prolong effective treatment of disease or put off a diagnosis of a more serious ailment.

Before taking any herbal remedy, discuss your treatment options with your physician. Be honest about your concerns regarding conventional medicines and try to find a solution that leads to a successful outcome.