Herbal remedies may date back centuries, but their appeal to the modern consumer is unprecedented. Experts project herbal supplement sales will soon surpass $86 billion globally, and industry groups claim over 170 million Americans consume supplements each year. As pharmaceutical prices continue to rise, the attraction of natural medicines is obvious: bold claims, low costs, and no prescription required.
But the sweet promises of supplement manufacturers often obscure a darker reality: The industry remains shockingly unregulated. This dynamic gives rise to 21st-century snake oil salesmen, who hawk wares that range from useless to dangerous online.
Which supplements have captured people' imaginations, and how many of these remedies have science on their side? We surveyed more than 1,300 people about the supplements they use and their reasons for doing so. We then checked the evidence supporting these herbal medicines, exploring how common cures may actually prove problematic. Keep reading to learn which herbal healing techniques are the most popular, and which could actually do more harm than good.
The thrust of our data is undeniable: Among all races or ethnicities and age groups studied, the vast majority has chosen natural cures over pharmaceutical options in the past. Herbal remedies and supplements were most popular among Gen Xers, but roughly 9 in 10 baby boomers and millennials took the natural route at least once before as well. Women also used herbal supplements and remedies at a slightly greater rate than men, perhaps due to the aggressive marketing of female beauty supplements on social media and other platforms.
Among various ethnic groups, multiracial individuals were the most likely to have used a natural supplement or remedy before, followed by Caucasian respondents. But among these demographic groups, rates of use were uniformly high, with the lowest being that of Hispanic people at 87.5 percent. Perhaps that's because the most common motivations for supplement use were universal concerns, such as improved sleep, skin care, and immune system health.
If supplements and herbal remedies are strikingly popular, which beliefs have fueled their rise? Unfortunately, some of the most widely believed claims about the benefits of herbal treatments are questionable – and possibly harmful. These include the view that antioxidants are always beneficial: While more than 4 in 5 respondents felt this was true, an excess of antioxidants may lead to an increased risk of disease and death. Other commonly held beliefs obscure a complex reality. While most respondents felt coconut oil helped one's skin, for example, its effects can actually be detrimental.
Unfortunately, for those seeking a natural route to shedding a few pounds, none of the widely believed natural weight loss remedies possessed adequate evidence. Some may have unrelated benefits (lemon water can supply a healthful dose of vitamin C), but scientific proof remains too scarce for these natural approaches to be considered effective for weight loss. While there's no herbal panacea, one natural path to weight has been thoroughly proven: a balanced diet and consistent exercise.
Many individuals reject prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines in favor of herbal alternatives, but our data indicate various demographic groups have slightly different motives in doing so. A greater percentage of women than men, for example, believed herbal supplements and remedies were better for their bodies. Baby boomers were also the most likely to be motivated by this concern, with more than three-quarters citing this justification for going herbal. Millennials, conversely, were more concerned with price and access – perhaps because many Americans in this age range lack health insurance.
Hispanic respondents were the most likely to feel natural supplements and remedies were better for their bodies than pharmaceuticals, whereas Asian people or Asian-Americans were the most likely to say herbal approaches were less dangerous. Black or African-American respondents, meanwhile, were the most likely to be motivated by perceived differences in price and effectiveness. It's worth noting the feeling that herbal remedies work better was the least common motive among all ages and ethnic groups. This suggests most individuals choose natural alternatives by preference, rather than desperation that pharmaceuticals haven't worked already.
Where do people gather their information about going au naturel? The most common source was the internet, which nearly half of participants had consulted before opting for an herbal remedy. Unfortunately, experts caution that medical information found online is often inaccurate, and frequently accompanied by a sales pitch for related products. The Food and Drug Administration recommends consulting a doctor before using a new supplement instead, but fewer than 5 percent of respondents had done so. Consultation with a medical professional is particularly important for those already taking prescriptions for chronic conditions; some herbal remedies can actually detract from the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals.
Men and women differed slightly in their approaches to seeking herbal information, with a greater percentage of female participants talking to doctors about herbal options. This finding could reflect conversations women are having about their nutritional needs during pregnancy. Herbal supplements are often marketed to soon-to-be moms, but doctors can help rule out options that are ineffective or even unsafe. Conversely, guys were more likely than women to turn to family members and friends for advice on natural supplements and remedies.
Parents vs. Prescriptions
If parents are concerned with the effects of pharmaceuticals on their adult bodies, their worries are likely amplified with regard to their offspring. Experts emphasize a need for caution in this regard: Children can be especially vulnerable to overdosing on natural supplements, and associated calls to poison control centers have skyrocketed in recent years. Yet these concerns haven't seemed to dampen enthusiasm for herbal remedies among parents: 82.2 percent of men and 88.6 percent of women have opted for a natural solution to their children's health needs in the past.
This choice was most common among Hispanic households, perhaps due to the cultural emphasis on traditional medicines described above. More than 9 in 10 multiracial parents did the same for their children. Interestingly, 89 percent of millennial parents have used natural remedies for their children as opposed to pharmaceuticals. Some complain pressure to use natural products is a modern form of parental pressure, born of an era in which millennial parents crowdsource tips online. In some such digital communities, mothers who give their kids pharmaceuticals are judged for exposing them to harsh chemicals.
Of the many natural remedies and supplements that flood the modern marketplace, melatonin was the most popular for all but one demographic: black or African-Americans. This should come as no surprise, given our earlier finding that poor sleep was the top reason respondents sought natural solutions. Experts attribute the sleep aid's rise to the dangers associated with pharmaceutical alternatives, many of which can be habit-forming. Valerian root, another substance claimed to improve sleep, was also among the top supplements for several demographics. Although these supplements are considered safe for short-term use, their supposed sleep-inducing properties have yet to be consistently verified.
Some popular natural supplements are marketed for their mental, rather than bodily, effects. St. John's wort, a supplement often heralded as a depression cure, was among the most commonly used remedies for all age groups. Unfortunately, scientific testing has generated only mixed results in recent studies – including some indications it can weaken or dangerously interact with other medications. Many also use essential oils for their mood-boosting potential, although proof of these properties remains scarce. That hasn't impeded their popularity among women and millennials, for whom essential oils were the second most commonly used natural remedy.
Although our data suggest the appeal of natural supplements has reached much of the American public, we hope our findings also demonstrate additional caution is required. While bold medicinal claims may seem enticing, supplement manufacturers may seek to exploit your eagerness for natural solutions. Before risking your money and health on unverified promises of holistic healing, it's best to consult a medical professional. Natural or otherwise, you deserve medical solutions proven to deliver results.
BodyLogicMD can supply the expertise you need to make choices rooted in medical truth. Our network of practitioners offers discreet and convenient consultations for all wellness concerns related to aging. Contact our team today to take control of your health with evidence-based treatments. Supplements for a wide variety of needs can be found here.
We collected 1,333 people's responses from Amazon's Mechanical Turk on their use of natural remedies and supplements over pharmaceuticals. 760 participants identified as women, 565 identified as men, and seven identified as a gender not listed. We had 192 baby boomers, 388 Gen Xers, and 730 millennials. All racial or ethnic groups had at least 24 respondents.
All responses are self-reported. It is possible that some respondents use natural remedies or supplements without knowing they are replacing a pharmaceutical. These people would not have been captured in our survey.
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