Teens who have tried herbal products are much more likely to try other potentially more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and anabolic steroids, a new study suggests.

Researchers found teenagers who had used herbal products, such as dietary supplements, were six times more likely to have tried cocaine and nearly 15 times more likely to have used anabolic steroids than those who have never used an herbal product.

"The study points to the need for parents and health care providers to ask if teens are using herbal remedies and from there probe deeper for possible drug use," says researcher Susan Yussman, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Children who are open to experimenting with herbal products may be more open to trying illicit drugs."

Teen Herb Use Tied to Illicit Drug Use

In the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 teenage students in New York State in 1999.

The survey defined use of an herbal product as ever using any “herbal or other natural products -- either to make you feel better, or to help you perform better at sports or at school.”

Overall, nearly 29 percent of teens said they had used herbal products, from St. John’s wort to natural performance enhancers, such as creatine.

Researchers found the heaviest herbal product users were more likely to use illicit drugs. Use of herbal products also increased with age, with over 24 percent of ninth graders reporting use of herbal products compared with nearly 30 percent of 12th graders.

In addition, teens who had ever used herbal products were:

--More than four times as likely to have ever used inhalants

--More than four times as likely to have tried LSD, PCP, ecstasy, mushrooms, and other illegal drugs

--Nearly six times as likely to have ever used cocaine

--Nearly seven times as likely to have ever used methamphetamines

--Eight times as likely to have ever used IV drugs

--Nearly nine times as likely to have ever used heroin

--Nearly 15 times as likely to have ever used steroids

Researchers say more studies are needed to determine which herbal products may be associated with use of which specific illicit drugs.

"A teen using a sports-enhancing product probably has a very different substance use pattern than a teen taking echinacea for a cold," says Yussman.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Yussman, S. Journal of Adolescent Health, March 23, 2006; vol 38: pp 395-400. News release, University of Rochester Medical Center.