Peek inside the typical American’s medicine cabinet, and you’re likely to see a virtual rainbow of brightly colored products that contain potentially harmful dyes. Among the most popular are intensely colored cold and flu formulas and cough syrups.

Scientists have long suspected that dyes can be dangerous for human consumption. In the early 20th century, metals used for coloring, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, were banned from use in foods and medicines. Coal-tar derivatives then became the new dye source—bright, almost fluorescent colors with numbers for names—Blue 1 and 2…Yellow 5 and 6…Red 3 and 40. Over the years, some coal-tar dyes (but not all) have been banned due to health concerns. Now scientists have become increasingly concerned about research linking food dyes to allergies and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In animal studies, dyes have been linked to tumors. Some manufacturers now produce dye-free products. Interestingly, however, the European Union requires warning labels on products that contain many dyes that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still allows. Armed with the right information, you can be smarter than the FDA by stocking your home medicine chest with dye-free natural remedies for the following conditions…*

• Cold and flu. What to skip: Theraflu, which contains such dyes as Blue 1 and Red 40. Better choices: Botanical antivirals (in tincture or capsule form), such as echinacea, Oregon graperoot, osha and elderberry.

• Cough. What to skip: Delsym, which contains Yellow 6 or other dyes. Better choices: Effective herbs for cough include ivy leaf, wild cherry bark, olive leaf and elecampane—all of which are available in syrups made with honey or stevia.

• Gas and indigestion. What to skip: Pepto Bismol, which contains Red 22 and Red 28. Better choice: Gas, bloating and acute diarrhea respond well to activated charcoal, which binds toxins from the gastrointestinal tract. It’s inert and will pass through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed into the blood. Activated charcoal can be found in drugstores. Follow label instructions.

Sleep. What to skip: NyQuil PM, which contains Green 3, Blue 1 and other dyes. Better choices: For occasional insomnia, take 50 mg of 5-HTP, an amino acid that plays a role in the production of sleep-promoting serotonin, at bedtime. (Do not try this remedy if you take an antidepressant.) When you use 5-HTP, it also helps to take Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower remedy that relaxes the nervous system. What to do: Add two drops of Rescue Remedy to the water you use to take the supplement, and keep some of this water next to your bed to sip on if you awaken during the night.

Caution: To make their products appear more visually appealing, some manufacturers have begun adding dyes to herbal medicines. If a packaged natural product is overly bright—beware! Check labels on all medicines, and avoid dyes whenever you can.

*Check with your doctor before trying these remedies—especially if you take any medication or have a chronic medical condition.