Offering benefits that are not always safe Offering benefits that are not always safe

The improper use of plant-based supplements may counter the effects of certain medications, make diseases worse or cause new conditions.

Advisor: Jorge Marín Cárdenas – Clinical Toxicologist

It is often common to see products advertised as nutritional supplements to improve either your physical or mental performance and some even say they can treat certain diseases. Some of these include maca, spirulina, American ginseng, ashwagandha and ginkgo biloba, which are currently not included in western pharmacopoeia. As Dr. Jorge Marín Cárdenas states, a clinical toxologist, “While their use is traditional, there are not enough scientific studies to support how they work and what their effects are in the body. Therefore, I do not recommend them for managing underlying organic diseases due to the high risk involved, especially with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, epilepsy, hepatitis and kidney problems.” If you are going to use them, consult first with a physician and make sure that the brand of the products is approved and registered with Invima (Colombia’s food and drug administration).

Take precautions

  • Maca is a traditional plant from Peru whose components include alkaloids, fatty acids and amino acids. It is used to boost physical performance, brainpower and to treat flu symptoms. If you take any medications, consult with your doctor before using it. Its use is recommended for a period of up to four months as it can increase the risk of liver damage and of conditions such as anemia.


  • Spirulina is an algae-based nutritional supplement. It has high amount of protein, vitamins and minerals. People take it to control anemia and lose weight. Because spirulina boosts immune system activity, it should not be taken if you have an autoimmune disease and should not be used together with blood thinners or immunosuppressants.


  • American ginseng is a herb that is used to fight stress, infections, anemia and insomnia. It also has properties that enhance mental performance. It contains both ginsenosides, which lower blood sugar levels, and polysaccharides, which can affect the immune system. If you take diabetes medications, using American ginseng could also drop your blood sugar to levels that are too low.


  • Similarly, because ginsenosides act as estrogen in the body, you should not use this substance if you have any estrogen-related condition, or breast or endometrial cancer. It should also be avoided if blood thinners such as warfarin are ingested. Other precautions include if antidepressants or immunosuppressants are taken, as well as interactions with other herbs and supplements that also lower blood sugar levels. To prevent liver damage, its use is recommended for up to six months.


  • Ashwagandha is a plant known as Indian ginseng and is native to Asia. It contains different types of alkaloids, is used to enhance physical and mental performance, and to manage stress, insomnia and anxiety. It should not be taken if you have a stomach ulcer or an autoimmune disease. It should also not be taken in combination with thyroid hormones, anti-diabetic medications, blood pressure medications, immunosuppressants, sedatives, or with herbs and supplements that lower blood pressure or can cause drowsiness.


  • Ginkgo biloba is a nutritional supplement from Asia. It contains flavonoids, which have antioxidant qualities, and terpenoids, which improve circulation. It is used to boost physical performance, brainpower, and to treat sleep and anxiety problems. People with epilepsy should avoid it, and it should not be taken together with antidepressants, diabetes medications, blood thinners, medications to treat brain conditions, or medications that are synthesized in the liver. It should also not be used together with St. John’s wort or with herbs that thin the blood to improve circulation.

Related: Are vitamin supplements really necessary?