If you have heart disease and are on heart medication, you may want to avoid taking herbal supplements, according to a new report published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.  Study experts found that while commonly used herbal products such as ginsing, ginko biloba, St. John's wort, saw palmetto, black cohosh and Echinacea aren't dangerous on their own, when taken in conjunction with medications to control cardiovascular disease, they may pose a risk for heart patients, especially those that were elderly. 

The reasons are twofold: One, some herbal remedies can adversely effect prescription drugs by making them either too potent or less effective, and two, combining herbal supplements with drugs can also cause serious heart rhythm problems, bleeding-herbal remedies such as garlic, ginko biloba, ginseng and ginger can interfere with blood thinning medications, especially warfarin-and raise blood pressure. St. John's wort, usually taken to ward off depression and anxiety, can diminish the efficacy of cholesterol-lowering statins and beta-blockers, a class of drugs used to control high blood pressure and heart-rhythm problems.

Because many people consider herbal supplements to be "natural" and, therefore, safe, they often neglect to mention they're taking alternative remedies to their healthcare providers and many healthcare providers don't ask about supplement use. Older patients need to be especially cognizant of drug interactions because they are more likely than younger people to have heart problems and may already be taking six or more prescription drugs, according to Arshad Jahangir, M.D., lead author of the report and a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Compounding the risk of mixing heart medicines with herbal products is the lack of scientific evidence proving herbal products are safe since few of them have gone through rigorous testing in randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials as is required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before it allows prescription drugs onto the market.

In addition to the safety issue with herbal products, since manufacturers don't have to seek FDA approval before putting them on the market, it's difficult to confirm both the purity and amounts of the active ingredients used in individual bottles of supplements.

The Bottom Line: If you have any health issues, it's imperative that you talk with your doctor before trying or continuing to take any herbal supplement.