- Today in the United States, herbal supplements are growing increasingly
popular, however, little is known about the safety and efficacy of these products. This
study contributes to the growing body of information about the prevalence of herbal
supplement use among young adults (18 to 24 years) and the beliefs young adults hold
about herbal supplements in relation to their dietary attitudes and behaviors.
A self-administered, four-part questionnaire was mailed to a geographically
representative sample of 298 young adults (18 to 24 years) residing in Oregon; 205
questionnaires were usable (69% response rate). There was an equal ratio of male and
female respondents, half students and half non-students, the majority being Caucasian
(93%), with a mean age of 21.5 years.
Nearly 60% of the sample reported using herbal supplements (n=122). Thirty-seven
percent were sometime users (less than weekly) and 22% were regular users (at
least weekly). More female respondents reported using herbal supplements (69%) than did male respondents (49%). Respondents who were White or Asian/Pacific
Islander were the only ethnic groups that reported using herbal supplements regularly.
Users were more educated than non-users, however use was very similar among
students and non-students. Herbal supplement use also was very similar between
respondents having different residencies.
Familiarity with different herbs was positively related to level of herbal
supplement use. Regular users were familiar with the greatest number of herbs,
followed by sometime users.
Herbal supplement users tended to have more healthful lifestyle characteristics
than non-users. Frequency of fast food patronage was negatively related to level of
herbal supplement use. The median number of times a fast food restaurant was
patronized was lower among regular users of herbal supplements than among those
who did not use supplements or used them less often. The median number of times
breakfast was eaten also seemed to be slightly higher among regular users than other
groups. Other healthful lifestyle characteristics, such as BMI and drinking in
moderation, did not tend to be more healthful among herbal supplement users. The
results were mixed on smoking behavior. Regular users of herbal supplements were no
more or less likely than non-users to smoke, but non-users were less likely than
sometime users to smoke.
Regular users of herbal supplements tended to think herbal supplements are
useful for certain health parameters more often than sometime users and non-users.
Most regular users of herbal supplements agreed herbs are useful for maintaining good
health (89%) and preventing/treating common illnesses like colds (85%). Almost two-thirds also thought herbs are useful for preventing serious chronic illnesses (61%) and
insuring a well-balanced diet (65%).
Attitudes toward the effectiveness, convenience, and expense of taking herbal
supplements in comparison to eating a balanced diet as ways of staying healthy were
related to herbal supplement use. Herbal supplement users did not appear to have
positive attitudes towards herbs when comparing herbs to a well-balanced diet. Only
11% of users thought that herbs are more effective than diet as ways to stay healthy,
and users were more likely than non-users to think herbs are more expensive ways to
stay healthy. However, both levels of users were more likely to think herbal
supplements are more convenient than diet.
Attitudes about the effectiveness, safety, expense, naturalness, potency, and
personal control of taking herbal supplements in comparison to prescription
medications was related to level of herbal supplement use. In general the trend was
for users to be more likely to have positive attitudes toward herbs and less likely to
give a "don't know" answer.
Eating the recommended number of food guide pyramid servings of fruits and
vegetables as well as eating a greater number of nutrient rich vegetables was not
related to herbal supplement use. However, a somewhat higher percentage of herbal
supplement users tended to meet the fruit and vegetable recommendations than nonusers
of herbal supplements.
Stage of change in relation to vegetable intake was related to herbal
supplement use. As respondents' herbal supplement use increased, so did the
likelihood of classifying themselves into one of the action stages of change for vegetable consumption. Stage of change for fruit consumption was not related to
herbal supplement use.
Choice to stop using herbs if they were pronounced unsafe by a governmental
agency was not related to level of herbal supplement use. However, 17% of sometime
users and 16% of regular users reported that they would continue to use herbs even
after they were pronounced unsafe by a governmental agency.
The results of this study clearly show that there is a high prevalence of herbal
supplement use among young adults in Oregon, and those who are using herbal
supplements seem to have a strong belief in the herbs they are taking. With the
limited knowledge on herbs' safety and efficacy, young adults need to be educated
about the herbs they are using. Hopefully, the information from this study can help
health professionals identify which young adults might be using herbal supplements in
order to educate them on making smart choices about herbs, and smart choices about
their overall health. To inform young adults about the herbs they are using, additional
research on herbal supplements' potential benefits and harmful side effects is needed.