Two individuals in San Francisco were in intensive care after taking herbal medicine, said Anthony Booker of The Conversation, a news and analysis website. This is likely to spark concerns surrounding the safety of herbal supplements. Are herbal remedies more dangerous than conventional medicine prescribed by your doctor or purchased from a pharmacy?
Many people consider herbal medicines as a safer alternative and are preferred by some of those in the general public for treating non-life-threatening health complications. For example, paracetamol and aspirin are drugs used to treat mild to moderate pain but are known to cause side effects such as gastric bleeds. Gastric bleeds are rare, however, its herbal equivalent like the devil’s claw reduces the risks of side effects.
A Survey On South Korean Medicine Users and the Adverse Events They Experienced (2017)
Soobin Jang and colleagues of Hindawi, an open-access publisher of research journals and papers, said there were a total of 1,134 respondents (591 or 52.1% men and 543 or 47.9% women) in the study. Of the respondents, 61.1% had taken herbal medicines within the previous year while 38.9% had not. With regard to their opinion on the safety of herbal medicines, 64% said herbal medicine is safe while 36% considered it as unsafe.
More women (60.5%) than men (39.5%) considered herbal medicine as unsafe. Those aged 20-29 years said herbal medicine is safe (versus 13.5% who said it is unsafe), so as those aged 30-39 (22.9% versus 17.4%) and 40-49 years (24.2% versus 24.8%). However, 25.7% of respondents in the 50-59 age group (versus 20.4%) and 18.6% of those aged 60-69 years (versus 11.3%) believed that herbal medicine is not safe, showing that older age groups tended to be more skeptical of it.
Herbal medicines were commonly bought in TKM hospital or clinic (63.6%). Other places mentioned by the participants were pharmacy (17%), traditional herb market (17%), health food store (14.6%), oriental pharmacy (12.8%), home shopping (11%), and hypermarket (11%). A decoction from TKM institutions was the most predominantly used type of herbal medicine (72.2%).
Crude herbs that are mainly used in food or tea (35.8%), health food (28.6%), national insurance-covered herbal medicines from TKM institutions (15.3%), national insurance-covered medicines from pharmacies (15%), and others (0.8%) were other types of herbal medicines. According to the respondents, they took herbal medicine for “health improvement” (57.3%), “treatment in KM hospitals or clinics” (40.3%), “recommendation from acquaintance” (34.8%), “recommendation from a pharmacist” (9.5%), and others (0.7%).
On the other hand, the reasons for not taking herbal medicine were “medication was not necessary” (63.7%), “uncertainty of origins” (35.4%), “expensive prices” (25.9%), “anxiety related to the possibility of harmful substances” (25.9%), and “anxiety related to the possibility of adverse events” (23.8%). Other reasons mentioned by the respondents were “disbelief regarding expiry date” (9.3%) and “no effectiveness” (8.8%), and others (1.6%).
Among those who have taken herbal medicines within the past year, 6.6% of 693 respondents said they had experienced adverse events from herbal medicines. The most common symptoms were digestive disorders (52.2%), skin disorders (34.8%), nervous disorders (23.9%), and systemic disorder (13%). The researchers concluded that specific regulations on herbal medicines should be established to address issues with the origins of herbal medicines, including the possibility of having harmful substances and expiry date. The efficacy and safety of herbal medicines must be ensured to further drive herbal product markets.
Are Herbal Medicines Safe?
Adverse events correlated with herbal medicines are reported less often than those associated with pharmaceuticals. In the UK, for instance, there were only 284 reports for herbal medicine and 26.129 for pharmaceuticals between 2006 and 2008. This difference may mean that adverse events related to herbal remedies are underreported or unrecognized. Further, it also indicates that adverse events are more common with pharmaceuticals than herbal medicines.
Booker asserted that serious side effects caused by herbal medicines are due to the product’s poor quality, as well as containing newly-discovered plant ingredients or adulterated— including with pharmaceuticals. Purchasing regulated herbal medicines offers a degree of assurance that the product is safe and of acceptable quality to the general public.
For example, traditional herbal products in the UK adhere to high standards and include a patient information leaflet containing its known side effects and possible interactions with pharmaceuticals. To illustrate, St. John’s Wort— which is used to treat mild depression— is known to have side effects when taken with Prozac (fluoxetine). Hence, the manufacturers of these remedies have a legal obligation to monitor any adverse events and report them to regulating bodies.
Tips to Ensure That You Are Buying A Quality Herbal Product
If you are interested in buying herbal supplements, it is recommended to check the name of the product, the name and address of the distributor or manufacturer, and the complete list of ingredients, as stated by the staff of Mayo Clinic, an American non-profit medical center. It is also recommended to check the serving size, amount, and active ingredient.
Consult your doctor for an explanation if you don’t understand something on a product’s label. To find out if the claims on the herbal product are true, Mayo Clinic suggested asking your doctor or pharmacist to guide you about its uses and risks even if they are not knowledgeable about a specific supplement. You can also look for studies about the product by consulting the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Office of Dietary Supplements to help you make intelligent decisions.
Another way to verify an herbal product’s claim is to call the manufacturer or distributor. Ask to speak to a representative who can answer your queries such as data or studies to support the manufacturer’s claim. Avoid relying on a product’s marketing campaign, as it can be misleading or not backed by scientific research.
When using herbal medicines, be sure to follow the product’s recommended dosages and avoid taking it for longer than recommended. Mayo Clinic recommended taking one herbal product at a time to gauge its efficacy. Write down how long you have taken the supplement and how it has affected you. If you think the supplement is ineffective or fails to meet your goals, stop taking the product.
Although herbal medicine is perceived as a safer alternative to conventional medicine, it is critical for consumers to exercise vigilance when buying herbal remedies. Consumers should verify the claims on the product’s label and contact a medical professional for more information about herbal supplements.