Herbs May Not Be Safe For You … New Jersey Naturopath Explains

Many Herbal Products Fail to Provide Important Safety Info, UK Study Finds

This study shows why you need a trained professional to ensure your safety when using herbs…

Many of the herbal preparations that can be purchased over the counter in health food stores and at drugstores still do not give important safe usage information on their packages, say researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK.

Earlier in 2011, the European Union passed new legislation requiring information on possible side effects to be given on packaging of traditional herb-based products like echinacea and St. John’s wort. In addition they must show clear information about possible interactions with prescription medicines and the adviseability of their use for people with specific illnesses. They have to be marked with a “THR” logo, indicating “Traditional Herbal Registration”.

There are, however, several well-known remedies like ginkgo and Asian ginseng that do not necessarily fall under this new law, and which may not show these important safety details. Another problem is older stocks of herbal products on store shelves which were packaged before the law was passed, and may also be missing safety cautions.

The University of Leeds team discovered that before the law came into force in April 2011, most “OTC” herbal products had none of the safety information now required. Professor of Pharmacy Theo Raynor, the lead researcher, says that the buying public has no assurance that the new law is making much difference at present.

“The best advice to consumers is ‘buyer beware’, as it always has been. Many people believe herbal medicines are somehow different to other medicines because they are ‘natural’. However, any substance that affects the body — no matter where it came from — has the potential to do harm if it is not taken correctly,” he cautioned.

The Leeds team bought 68 separate preparations of five well-known herbs (echinacea, St. John’s wort, Asian ginseng, ginkgo, and garlic) at a range of retailers – three large chain pharmacies, three supermarket pharmacies, and two large health food stores. All of the herbs chosen have been shown to cause harmful effects in some persons in some circumstances.

For example, ginkgo can increase bleeding risks, echinacea can bring on allergic reactions, St. John’s wort can reduce the efficacy of contraceptive pills, and Asian ginseng should not be taken by diabetics. Something as common as garlic can have problematic effects in some cases, as it thins the blood and may interfere with HIV therapy.

The product information on the purchased herbs was compared to information for these substances from the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The study evaluated the accuracy and completeness of the information the products gave about drug interactions, precautions for those with specific illnesses, and possible side effects.

The results, published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Medicine, show that 93% of the purchased products were unlicensed, which means that they were not legally required to come up to product safety informations standards. Over half of these were being sold as food supplements. Just 13% had an information sheet included in the packaging, and only three products gave an acceptable amount of safety information.

Professor Raynor stated, “Consumers need reliable and comprehensive information when buying herbal medicines — information which tells them whether it is suitable for them. I would advise anyone buying a herbal medicine to check that the box or packaging contains the ‘THR’ logo, which shows that the information it comes with has been approved.

“Herbal medicines should, ideally, be purchased where trained staff are available, so that consumers can have any questions answered. This information should be available from pharmacists. People should also always tell their doctor about herbal medicines they are taking, so they receive the best possible care.”

August 9, 2011, Science Daily.

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