Herbal danger: You'll rue taking rue

Consumer Reports News: March 16, 2012 03:18 PM

The small, flowering evergreen shrub with a bitter smell known as rue, ruda, ruta, or Herb De Grace, can be found in many parts of the world. Historically, it has been used medicinally, as a flavor ingredient in foods and beverages, and as a fragrance additive in the manufacturing of soaps and cosmetics. Rue has received literary mention in Gulliver's Travels, Hamlet, and Harry Potter, and is considered by some to be protection against witches and spells. Distinguishing myth and truth in the medical use of rue is essential for your safety and health - especially if you’re female.

Rue can be dangerous for pregnant or nursing women. The herb can cause uterine contractions and miscarriage. If used to induce an abortion it can have serious side effects, including death, for the mother and baby. Other side effects include stomach problems, kidney and liver damage, and, when applied to the skin, rashes and increased sun sensitivity.

Because of its side effects, its best to avoid using this herb as a remedy, as it has not stood the test of time. This despite its use as a treatment for many ailments, including as a tea for menstrual disorders, gastric upset, headaches, parasites, and topically for sprains, skin inflammation, and to repel insects. Rue is, alas, still readily available from herbal websites, and in the "botanicas" or medicinal shops where many Latinos go to buy traditional remedies passed on by their heritage and grandmothers. Do not use internally in small children or the elderly, and do not take rue together with medications to lower blood pressure.

Here are a few other important points to remember when considering using herbal treatments.

• Marketing promises like “all natural” or “organic” do not mean a plant is safe, nor that it is safer than a properly prescribed medication
• Be skeptical of private label supplements or sales of herbs in bags with no labels.
• Look for USP verification on the label when you buy herbs or supplements to ensure purity, dosage, quality, and decreased possibility of contamination or adulteration of that product
• Do not take herbs or supplements with prescription drugs without discussion with your physician or pharmacist, or the advise of an integrative physician

See our report on whether it's safe to buy supplements in botánicas and our advice on five popular supplements.

Joseph Mosquera, M.D.

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