According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds, in England, and published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Medicine, common herbal remedies sold all over the world, such as ginseng and gingko biloba, may be missing crucial information pertaining to their possible side effects, interactions with other drugs or supplements, and the impact they may have on consumers who suffer from various illnesses.
Only a few months ago, an EU law regulating the commercialization of “traditional herbal remedies” came into effect, urging manufactures to clearly state all safety-related information on the product label or instructions for use that come with each supplement. Products such as echinacea and St. John’s wort have already been regulated by this new law, although batches of supplements manufactured before the law passed, and missing crucial safety information, may still be found on numerous pharmacy shelves.
The research team at the University of Leeds looked at popular herbal supplements sold over the counter and produced prior to the passing of the EU law. They concluded that the majority of herbal remedies did not, in fact, come with clear safety information. According to the study leader, Professor of Pharmacy Theo Raynor, there is further cause for concern, as little is truly expected to change in the long run, even with the enforcement of the new EU law. Professor Raynor reminds us that the best thing to do is to simply be aware of the potential dangers of herbal medicines, and treat them like any other drugs.
“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 added.
Ginseng, one of many such herbal remedies sold over the counter in Europe and the United States, is used in traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac, adaptogen, and nourishing stimulant, as well as for the treatment of sexual dysfunction and type II diabetes. Ginseng extract is often added to energy drinks, teas, and cosmetic products, to enhance their restorative properties. Ginseng may cause an array of disturbing side effects, including persistent insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, epistaxis (nose bleeds), elevated blood pressure or low blood pressure, and breast pain, and it may even induce states of mania in patients suffering from depression.
Echinacea is yet another well-known herbal supplement, usually taken to boost immunity and believed to be very efficient in cutting the chances of contracting a cold. However, the long-term effects of echinacea consumption are not yet known, while unwanted after-effects include an increased risk of allergy (in the form of nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, itches, and rashes). St John’s wort is commonly used to treat and manage depression, but it can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms, dizziness, confusion, tiredness, and sedation.
For their investigation, the Leeds scientists used 68 different preparations of five common herbal remedies (St John’s wort, Asian ginseng, echinacea, garlic, and ginkgo). To keep the study as varied as possible, the products were purchased from eight different sources (including pharmacies, health food stores, and supermarkets). The team compared the usage and safety information that came with each supplement to the safety information provided by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The results were quite alarming: 93% of the herbal remedies sold at all of the eight sources were unlicensed, which means that the manufacturers were not even required to follow through with the EU law. Furthermore, more than half of these products were sold as food supplements, which most people unknowingly perceive as safe, or unlikely to produce adverse reactions. Not surprisingly, only 13% of all supplements tests came with any information sheet, and only three out of 68 provided sufficient safety information, in compliance with the EU regulation.
While humans can derive all of the nutrients they need from a healthy and balanced diet, individuals who do find themselves purchasing herbal products should look for packages that have the “THR” logo, as this means that the specific product is licensed with the “Traditional Herbal Registration”. Warning about the risks of consuming unlicensed medicines, professor Raynor also advised that “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.”