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South Africa, Herbal Remedies

Are Herbal Remedies Harmless?

 By Dr. Gifford Jones

“What happened to the patient?” I asked the doctor at the huge Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, South Africa. “It was necessary to remove her entire large bowel” he replied. “She used a herbal medicine that caused irreparable injury to the colon. This happens several times a year in Soweto. The people in Soweto love herbal medicines”.

During a visit to South Africa I spent two days touring what South Africans refer to as the “Bara”. It’s the largest hospital in Africa. Noted for its expertise in tropical medicine. And at times for treating catastrophic injuries related to herbal medicine.

Today an increasing number of North Americans are using a variety of herbal preparations. Fortunately, the majority of them have been tested by time and do not cause such calamitous complications.

But how safe are medicines that go by names such as phytochemicals, botanicals and herbal remedies?

A report in the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine Health News demonstrates once again that an old adage still rings true. You never get anything for nothing whether from conventional or herbal medicine.

According to an English survey of 400 people eight percent of those using herbal products suffered non©serious side effects. But many authorities believe the incidence of adverse effects is much higher.

The most commonly reported reactions were allergic skin rashes, respiratory problems, diarrhea, anemia and liver and kidney damage. And last, but not least on the list, inflammation of the large bowel. That took my mind back to the Bara.

A skin rash as a side effect is one thing. But one product, Germander, used for weight control or to stimulate the bowels, has been linked to hepatitis and acute liver failure.

Comfrey and chaparal, present in many popular herbal teas, has also been associated with liver damage and have been removed from the Canadian market.

Some believe that properly prescribed and prepared Chinese herbal remedies are safe for most people. But others disagree. Dr. Frank Chandler, Professor of Pharmacology, Phytochemistry and Herbal Remedies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, urges caution when using Oriental herbal remedies.

In 1996 an Australian study also concluded : “There are currently insufficient data to fully quantify the risks presented by Chinese herbal medicine.”

One major problem is lack of quality assurance. A reliable source recently told me that some of the remedies tested had no herbal content at all! Or at best one©third of the amount they were supposed to contain.

Contamination is another potential hazard. Studies have found that some herbal products contain arsenic, lead and mercury.

We also know very little about the interaction between herbal and prescription drugs. For instance, oil of primrose may increase the risk of epileptic attack when taken with drugs to treat depression.

But there’s no point in saying, “Don’t take herbal medicine”. Millions of people are doing so and many appear to be obtaining relief from herbs of various kinds. One study showed that 42 percent of Canadians and 34 percent of Americans use some form of alternative medicine (herbal, acupuncture, homeopathy, massage).

Dr. Chandler reported that he had seen two cases where Devil’s Claw had helped patients suffering from severe arthritis. Others claim that Feverfew has eased the pain of migraine. Still others are convinced that Echinacea builds up the immune system and fights the common cold.

So this column is not meant to demonize herbal medicine. But whether considering conventional or herbal medicine it’s wise to be careful.

Be sure to buy herbal products from a reputable health food store or pharmacy. And look for the Drug Identification Number (DIN). This tells you the herb has been approved for a particular condition. Check as well the expiratory date on the bottle.

Don’t be timid about telling your doctor that you’re taking a herbal medicine. This may save you from a bad drug reaction. And don’t take any conventional or herbal medicine during pregnancy or lactation.

This above all else. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural”. It conveys the feeling that it’s safe. But the world’s greatest poisons are plants. The Hemlock plant killed Socrates.

I’ve never forgotten that case at the Baragwanath Hospital nor the false impressions T.V often provides us. I toured Soweto and expected to find abject poverty.

It’s present in Soweto. But I was astonished to also see areas with huge homes with Mercedes parked in front. And I was told that some of the wealthy homes belonged to doctors of herbal medicine!Ô

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Dr. Gifford Jones  Bio
Dr. Gifford Jones Most recent columns

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He’s been a ship’s surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: http://www.mydoctor.ca/gifford-jones

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