Herbal medicines are really widely used, and this is based on people believing that these products which are said to be “natural” are safer than your typical pharmaceutical-grade medication.
Herbal medications lack regulation and monitoring but I must admit I have not actively discouraged my patients from trying these.
My approach has been that they can trial the herbal stuff for a fixed period and that they should be honest with themselves as to whether it is effective. If not effective, I would hope that the person is then ready to try more controlled medication and treatment options.
The recent article in the Medical Journal of Australia might change my approach.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide cite a number of potential dangers of herbal products, given the lack of testing before they are sold by naturopaths, alternative medicine providers, online, in pharmacies, etc. The 5 dangers discussed were:
- Adulteration with actual pharmaceutical agents: “presumably added to increase the apparent efficacy of the herbal product”. This exposes people to the risks of ingesting uncontrolled amounts of these drugs unknowingly. There's risk of allergy & organ toxicity.
- Substituted plant ingredients: this may be done deliberately especially if the original plant is difficult to obtain or expensive, or it might occur as an accident, as the result of misinterpreting or inaccurately transcribing names or formulas.
- The actual presence of toxic substances. This has included material from animals and plants, as well as heavy metals & pesticides.
- Inadequate processing & removal of any unwanted ingredients.
- Interactions with other medications being taken: “herbal medicines may enhance or reduce the effects of prescribed medications or elicit unpredictable idiosyncratic effects”.
Essentially, the authors argue for independent testing of herbal products with more regulation and monitoring, particularly given the usual claims of complete safety.
It’s hard to argue against this suggestion to protect all of you taking these herbal products.