Herbs are not always as effective as they are claimed; it is not always safe for all. Sometimes herbal products cause adverse reactions

Herbal medicine – also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine – refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favour of drugs.

Myth: Herbs are natural, safe and effective.

Truth: There’s a common assumption that “natural” means “safe”.  Just think of hemlock or poisonous mushrooms. There are many poisonous (and often lethal) plants found in nature, so this assumption is clearly incorrect. Most herbal remedies are believed to be benign, at least in the short run, there are numerous exceptions.

Probably all herbs have the potential to cause allergic reactions, and many herbs can produce side effects, such as stomach upset or diarrhoea.  Some herbal products may be contaminated with pesticides or toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, mercury and lead. Other herbal products, usually pills or extracts, may be illegally spiked with potentially harmful prescription drugs, including steroids and diazepam.

Myth: You don’t need to inform a doctor about herbs.

Truth: People who take herbal supplements usually don’t tell their doctors. That’s unwise. Doctors and patients don’t need to discuss the use of natural therapies.

If your doctor doesn’t know what you’re taking, then it would be difficult to treat certain chronic diseases. There are so many herbs which can aggravate hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, gastric ulcer, diabetes. Furthermore, some herbs may interact harmfully with the drugs your doctor prescribes. Garlic, ginger and ginkgo biloba may inhibit clotting, which could cause excessive bleeding if you’re taking other, more powerful blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin. Any blood-thinning drug may potentially interact with any herb or supplement with anticoagulant properties, such as vitamin E, fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids. Ginseng may lower blood sugar excessively in people taking conventional diabetic drugs to control sugar levels. These all are important issues when a patient is prepared for surgery. So, you need to inform a doctor about herbs.

Myth: Natural therapies don’t need scientific evidence.

Truth: The label for one saw palmetto supplement says, “it is effective in treatment of benign hyperplasia of prostate”. Another, for goldenseal, says, “it helps reduce inflammation of mucous membranes.” Most makers of herbal products now make such claims - and they almost never have to provide any proof. Scientific evidence supports many natural products for several health conditions. For example, there is strong clinical evidence that peppermint (Mentha × piperita) may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Ginko biloba is being used for tinnitus due to otosclerosis. Another example, kava (Piper methysticum) is also supported by clinical evidence for reducing anxiety; however, due to widespread concern regarding potential liver toxicity, kava has been withdrawn in several European and North American markets. More research is needed for natural therapies in general to determine safety, effectiveness and proper dosing.

Myth: Natural products have no place in conventional medicine.

Truth: Natural products are often regarded as “alternative” therapies that aren’t supported by science. However, it is important to note that many of the drugs that are currently available – in fact, even the most commonly used drugs – are derived from nature. In the last decade alone, more than 20 newly approved drugs were derived from natural sources, including plants and microorganisms. Notable examples include the opiate painkillers, such as morphine and oxycodone, which are derived from the latex sap of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Another example is aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), described as “the most popular painkiller in the world,” is derived from salicylic acid, which is found in willow (Salix spp) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria, formerly Spirea ulmaria).

To use herbs safely and effectively

Tell your doctor about any herbal remedies. Avoid herbal remedies if you’re pregnant, may become pregnant or are breast-feeding. Consult a reliable source of information about dosages and precautions. As herbal products continue to grow in popularity, patients and healthcare providers need to be aware of potential herb-drug interactions and other safety issues. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness, potential benefits and risks of many complimentary alternative medicine therapies.

Dr Sajol Ashfaq