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The NIH’s HerbList App: Helping or Hurting?


In June 2018, the National Institute of Health (NIH) launched an app available for download on iPhone and Android. The “HerbList” app aims to provide users with “information about the science of popular herbs and herbal supplements” and is published by the NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The Center conducts research into complementary and alternative medicine, which, not surprisingly, often shows no benefits.

HerbList has been downloaded about 1,000 times since its release last month, including by me. It’s a list of popular and widely available herbal supplements, and when an herb is selected, the user receives a short background about the plant and its proposed uses, a section describing whether the currently available science supports those claims, and some safety information.


www.nih.govTo the credit of the NIH, the first 10 supplements I’ve looked through, including Acai, Asian Ginseng, Butterbur, and Green Tea,  were reported as having insufficient evidence to warrant the health claims they advertise, and HerbList does provide potential drug interactions and links to primary studies of the supplements’ efficacy.


This makes HerbList something of a double-edged sword. It does not guarantee that the product listed on a bottle of supplements is actually in there, or is at the labeled dosage --it doesn't evaluate any specific manufacturer of supplements. Further, the very existence of HerbList and the fact that an NIH institute took the time to develop this app may lend credibility to a business already fraught with data manipulation, fabrication, and exaggeration.

But it may also prove to be a valuable resource for people who otherwise would have never examined their own beliefs about supplements. In the best case, it might avert harmful drug/supplement interaction, in the worst, it will be disingenuously used to support use of needless supplements.


By Yelena Bernadskya