QUESTION

My blood pressure has always been normal, but lately it's getting higher. The only recent change I’ve made is starting to take some herbal supplements. Can supplements cause high blood pressure?

ANSWER

Yes, your herbal supplements could be affecting your blood pressure! Seasoning your food with herbs and spices generally doesn’t have much effect on blood pressure. But the concentrated forms of herbs used in supplements can raise blood pressure…or lower it. It depends on what supplements you’re using. Among the herbal supplements that can raise blood pressure are…

  • Licorice, found in formulas to relieve indigestion, heartburn, menstrual disorders, canker sores, cold symptoms and sore throat, among others. This refers to whole licorice. There’s another form, called deglycyrrhizinated licorice, that is less likely to raise blood pressure for most people (some people may be sensitive even to the DGL form of licorice).
  • Bitter orange, used in weight-loss formulas and, ironically, also to improve appetite…and used for upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, intestinal gas, nasal congestion and chronic fatigue syndrome. While generally safe in foods and beverages, bitter orange can cause potentially severe adverse cardiovascular effects in some people.
  • Ginkgo biloba, found in supplements to improve memory, cognition, anxiety, cardiovascular function and eye health.
  • Senna, used as a natural laxative and in supplements for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hemorrhoids and weight loss and used as a bowel prep before colonoscopy.
  • Guarana, used in supplements for weight loss and to enhance athletic performance, reduce mental and physical fatigue and boost sexual desire.
  • St. John’s wort, well-known as a natural treatment for mild-to-moderate depression, also used to treat anxiety, stomach upset, insomnia and fluid retention.
Supplements that can reduce blood pressure include those that contain cinnamon, garlic, ginger and/or cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa). Vitamin D-3, as well as the citrate forms of calcium and magnesium, also can reduce blood pressure. People with high blood pressure who want to try managing it naturally may have success with calcium, magnesium and/or vitamin D-3. (It’s best to ask your doctor about the best dosages.) Herbal supplements aren’t the only common, everyday culprits that can affect blood pressure. Coffee, tea, energy drinks and other beverages with caffeine can raise blood pressure. So can nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as indomethacin and ibuprofen…monoamine oxidase inhibitor drugs used to treat depression and Parkinson’s disease…tricyclic antidepressants…and decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. Many product labels include warnings about effects on blood pressure—so read labels carefully and take what they say seriously. Of course, not all products, including many herbal supplements, come with any warnings at all. Herbal supplements have a “health halo” in some people’s minds. Play it safe by letting your doctor know everything you take, including supplements that you may think are not worth mentioning because they’re “just herbs.” That’s especially important if you’re being treated for a medical condition.