MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

herbal medicine

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On this blog, I have discussed the lamentable quality of TCM products before (e. g. here, here and here). In a nutshell, far too high percentages of them are contaminated with toxic substances or adulterated with prescription drugs. It is no question: these deficits put many consumers at risk. Equally, there is no question that the problem has been known for decades.

For the Chinese exporters, such issues are a great embarrassment, not least because TCM-products are amongst the most profitable of all the Chinese exports. In the past, Chinese officials have tried to ignore or suppress the subject as much as possible. I presume they fear that their profits might be endangered by being open about the dubious quality of their TCM-exports.

Recently, however, I came across a website where unusually frank and honest statements of Chinese officials appeared about TCM-products. Here is the quote:

China is to unroll the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) resources to ensure a better development of the industry, said a senior health official…

With the public need for TCM therapies growing, the number of medicine resources has decreased and people have turned to the cultivated ones. However, due to a lack of standards, the cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use, said Wang Guoqiang, director of the State Administration of TCM, at a TCM seminar held in Kunming, Yunnan Province in southwest China.

There is a pressing need to protect TCM resources, Wang said. “I’ve heard people saying that medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry, which I must admit, is no exaggeration,” he said.

The survey has been piloted in 922 counties in 31 provinces in China since 2011. According to its official website, it will draw a clear picture of the variety, distribution, storage and growth trends of TCM resources, including herbs, animals, minerals and synthetic materials.

TCM includes a range of traditional medical practices originating in China. It includes such treatments as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage (tuina), exercise (qigong) and dietary therapy.

Although well accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, TCM is considered an alternative medical system in much of the western world and has been a source of controversy. A milestone in the recognition of TCM came when Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her discovery of Artemisinin, a medicinal herb, to help treat malaria.

END OF QUOTE

Surely, these are remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented statements by Chinese officials:

…cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use…

…medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry…

Let’s hope that, after such words, there will be appropriate actions… finally.

Informed consent is a basic ethical principle and a precondition for any medical or surgical procedure (e. g. a therapeutic intervention or a diagnostic test). Essentially, there are 4 facets of informed consent:

  1. the patient must have decision-making capacity,
  2. the patient’s decision must be free from coercion or manipulation,
  3. all relevant information must be disclosed to the patient,
  4. the patient must not merely be told but must understand what he/she has been told.

It seems to me that points 1, 2 and 4 are more or less the same in alternative as in conventional medicine. Point 3, however, has fundamentally different implications in the two types of healthcare.

What is meant by ‘all relevant information’? There seems to be general agreement that this should include the following elements:

  1. the indication,
  2. the nature of the procedure,
  3. its potential benefits,
  4. its risks,
  5. other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all.

If we carefully consider these 5 elements of ‘all relevant information’, we soon realise why there might be profound differences between alternative and conventional medicine. These differences relate not so much to the nature of the procedures but to the competence of the clinicians.

At medical school, doctors-to-be learn the necessary facts that should enable them to adequately deal with the 5 elements listed above. (This does not necessarily mean that, in conventional medical or surgical practice, informed consent is always optimal. But there is little doubt that, in theory, it could be optimal.)

By contrast, alternative practitioners have not normally been to medical school and will have gone through an entirely different type of training. Therefore, the question arises whether – even in theory – they are able to transmit to their patients all essential information as outlined above.

Let’s try to address this question by looking at concrete cases: a patient with frequent headaches consults an alternative practitioner for help. For the sake of argument, the practitioner could be:

  • a chiropractor,
  • an acupuncturist,
  • a homeopath,
  • a naturopath,
  • a traditional herbalist.

Are these alternative practitioners able to convey all the relevant information to their patient before starting their respective treatments?

THE CHIROPRACTOR

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? In all likelihood he would treat the headache as though it was caused by a spinal subluxation. If our patient were suffering from a brain tumour, for instance, this might dangerously delay the diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Many chiropractors deny any risk of spinal manipulation.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? Probably yes for cervicogenic headache. No for most other differential diagnoses.

THE TRADITIONAL ACUPUNCTURIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? The patient might be treated for an assumed ‘energy blockage’; other diagnoses might not be given adequate consideration.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Perhaps.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No

THE CLASSICAL HOMEOPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No, for a classical homeopath, the totality of the symptoms is the only valid diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? Doubtful.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE NATUROPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? Doubtful.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE TRADITIONAL HERBALIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

The answers provided above are based on my experience of more than 20 years with alternative practitioners; I am aware of the degree of simplification required to give short, succinct replies. The answers are, of course, assumptions as well as generalisations. There may well be individual practitioners who would do better (or worse) than the fictitious average I had in mind when answering the questions. Moreover, one would expect important national differences.

If my experience-based assumptions are not totally incorrect, their implications could be most significant. In essence they suggest that, in alternative medicine, fully informed consent can rarely, if ever, be provided. In turn, this means that the current practice of alternative medicine cannot be in line with the most fundamental requirements of medical ethics.

There is very little research on any of these  issues, and thus hardly any reliable evidence. Therefore, this post is simply meant as a deliberately provocative essay to stimulate debate – debate which, in my view, is urgently required.

 

Yesterday, a press-release reached me announcing that a Chinese herbal medicine, ‘Phynova Joint and Muscle Relief Tablets’, containing the active ingredient Sigesbeckia, is now on sale in the UK for the first time in Boots The Chemist: 

Sigesbeckia is the first traditional Chinese treatment granted a traditional herbal registration (THR) under the traditional herbal medicines product directive in the UK, by drug safety watchdog the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).  Oxford based Phynova which manufactures the product was granted the UK licence last year. 

Containing 500mg of the active ingredient, Phynova Joint and Muscle Relief Tablets are specially formulated for the relief of backache, arthritis, minor sports injuries, rheumatic or muscular pains and general aches and pains in muscles or joints.  Two tablets are taken each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. They have no known side effects and are non-addictive. .. 

The product, which retails at £19.99 for one month’s supply of 60 tablets, is available in 950 UK Boots outlets and online via Click and Collect from all stores.  It will be sold both Over the Counter (OTC) by pharmacist staff and off the shelf as part of Boots’ pain relief fixture… 

END OF QUOTE

What on earth is a ‘joint and muscle relief’? Personally I do not want to be relieved of my joints and muscles!!!

Yes, I know, they probably mean ‘joint and muscle pain relief’ but were not allowed to say so because this is a medical indication.

And what about the claim of ‘no side-effects’; is it possible that a pharmacological treatment has positive effects without any risks at all? This is not what they told me during my pharmacology course, if I remember correctly. And anyway, even placebos have side-effects!

I admit, I was puzzled.

The covering letter of the press-release provided more amazement: it informed me that “Phynova joint and muscle relief contains the active ingredient Sigesbeckia which has been through clinical trials and has been used for pain relief in China for hundreds of years…” It was the remark about clinical trials (PLURAL!!!) that caught my interest most.

So, I looked up ‘Sigesbeckia’ on Medline and found as good as nothing. This is mainly because the plant is spelled correctly ‘Siegesbeckia’ in honour of the famous botanist Siegesbeck.

Looking up ‘Siegesbeckia’, I found many pre-clinical studies but no clinical trials.

Next I searched for a comment from the MHRA and discovered that their account makes it very clear that a licence has been granted to this product “exclusively upon long standing use… and not upon data from clinical trials.”

So, who is right?

Are there clinical trials of this product or not? And, if there are any, where are they?

Perhaps someone from Phynova can enlighten us?

 

Nobody can doubt that, during the last 200 years, conventional medicine has made monumental progress. Homeopathy, however, has remained more or less like Hahnemann invented it. But now it seems as though homeopathy can celebrate an unprecedented step ahead. As so often in medicine, it originates from a commercial enterprise.

Genexa is a US firm that produces natural health products. On their website, they state that “At Genexa, we believe medicine should be free from unhealthy fillers and toxins”. They recently published a press-release introducing a line of homeopathic medicines certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Non-GMO Project verified. They are keen to point out that these products “do not contain any genetically modified ingredients.” In fact, several of their remedies do not contain any active ingredients to speak of: they are homeopathic!

“We are extremely proud of our organic and non-GMO certifications – the seals are prominently featured on all our products and website for easy label reading and patient education,” stated David Johnson, CEO of Genexa, in their press-release. “Our quality standards are among the highest in the over-the-counter medicine industry.”

Genexa’s 11 homeopathic formulations are being advertised for the treatment of common health issues such as flu, cold, allergies, stress, pain, leg cramps, sleeplessness and jet lag. An entire line of products is, according to the press-release, specially formulated for children and includes treatments for cold, allergy and calming.

Genexa’s CMO proudly announced that “It’s important to us that our retail customers feel confident in the products and know they can trust they are purchasing medicines free from unhealthy fillers and toxins and simply focus on healing.” Presumably that trust must include the trust into the efficacy of the homeopathic remedies! Yes, I am pleased to report that, apparently it does; elsewhere they confirm this by stating that “Genexa holds itself to the highest standards in both quality and ethics.” The highest standards of ethics surely include that the remedies in question are demonstrably efficacious.

But how can we be sure? Are any of these homeopathic remedies supported by reasonably strong evidence? Oddly enough, despite all these affirmations, I did get my doubts when I tried to dig a bit deeper.

Take the homeopathic remedy called SLEEPOLOGY, for instance. The website informs us that “This homeopathic formulation consists of nine leading remedies designed to treat sleeplessness, inability to fall asleep, frequent waking, restless sleep and sleeplessness from stress, exhaustion, nervousness, excitability, restlessness, worries, irritability, and pain.” So, it’s a complex homeopathic remedy with 9 different ingredients. But is there any evidence of efficacy for this mixture? I am not aware of any clinical trials that have tested its efficacy. But I must be wrong, because on the website we are being told that “Clinical trials have demonstrated efficacy for treating sleeplessness for piper methysticum, and valeriana officinalis.” That may be so, but the trials were done with herbal extracts, not with homeopathic potencies! Could the statement therefore be more than a little misleading?

On the internet, I found all sorts of fascinating bits about the new homeopathic lines (my compliments to the PR firm that organised the launch!); for instance the revelation that: “The company’s proprietary medicines were created by and are regularly reviewed and enhanced by its chief medical officer, Dr. Todd Rowe*, a nationally respected physician with an expertise in homeopathic medicine formulation. Working with the Genexa team, Dr. Rowe and his team of chemists and pharmacists spent hundreds of hours meticulously formulating and testing the products. The result is a line of effective, potent medicines that are certified organic by the USDA and non-GMO verified by the Non-GMO Project. “Our formulations are based on tried and true principles for miasmatic and energetic balance, so that the remedies potentiate each other and promote the most positive patient outcomes,” said Dr. Rowe. “These powerful medicines work with your body to help it heal itself.”” However, I was unable to find out which potencies are being used for the Genexa homeopathic products. This information might not be that relevant: according to the homeopathic ‘like cures like’ principle, the effects of a substance are reversed through potentiation. This is why coffee, for instance, is potentised by homeopath to generate a sleeping remedy. Does it not follow then that, potentising two or more herbal ingredients that have hypnotic effects (as in SLEEPOLOGY), must generate a remedy for preventing sleep? A similarly puzzling lack of ‘homeopathic logic’ seems to apply to several other products in Genexa’s line of homeopathic remedies.

I have to admit, I am confused.

Could it be that the ‘breakthrough’ turns out to be a breakdown of ‘homeopathic logic’?

Let’s hope someone from Genexa reads these lines and can enlighten us.

[*he is the President of the American Medical College of Homeopathy]

It has been reported that ‘Boots the Chemist’ have filed several legal complaints against The Guardian in relation to articles published by the paper in relation to its April 2016 investigation. The Guardian articles in question alleged that Boots, the UK’s largest pharmacy chain, had placed undue pressure on its pharmacists to perform medicines use reviews so that it could claim the maximum payments possible from the NHS. In other words, The Guardian implied that Boots was trying to get more money from our NHS than might have been due.

Personally, I am always uneasy when I hear that someone takes legal action on such matters. I think that legal complaints of such a nature can turn out to be counter-productive, both in general and in this particular instance.

Why?

There could be several reasons. For instance, such actions might give someone the idea of filing complaints against Boots. I am sure it is not difficult to find reasons for that.

In the realm of alternative medicine, for example, someone might question whether selling homeopathic remedies in Boot’s section ‘pharmacy and health’ is not misleading. These remedies might be seen by a naïve customer as masquerading as medicines. As readers of this blog know all too well, they do not, in fact, contain anything (other than lactose) that has any pharmacological activity. Therefore Boots should best market them in the category of ‘confectionary’.

One might even suspect that Boots are fully aware of all this. After all, a spokesperson for the company stated years ago during a parliamentary inquiry: “I have no evidence to suggest that they [homeopathic remedies sold by Boots] are efficacious …”

And it is also not the first time that Boots have been challenged for selling products they know to be placebos. This is what The Guardian reported in 2008 about the issue: “Ernst accuses the company [Boots] of breaching ethical guidelines drawn up by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, by failing to tell customers that its homeopathic medicines contain no active ingredients and are ineffective in clinical trials.”

A similar void of evidence also applies to Boot’s wide range of Bach Flower Remedies and aromatherapy oils.

Or am I wrong?

Perhaps Boots want to post links to the evidence in the  comment section below?

I am always keen to learn and only too happy to change my mind in view of new, compelling evidence!

Boots also sell a very wide range of herbal medicines, and here the situation is quite different: herbal medicines actually contain molecules that might have pharmacological effects, i. e. they might heal or might harm you. And many of these products imply indications for which they should be taken. I will pick just one example to explain: HERBAL SLIM AID.

Yes, you are absolutely correct – this product is (according to its name) not for gaining weight, it’s for reducing it. Each coated tablet contains 45 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Bladderwrack thallus (Fucus vesiculosus L.) (5:1) (equivalent to 225 mg of Fucus) Extraction solvent: water, ,30 mg Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale Weber ex Wigg), 27 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Boldo leaf (Peumus boldus Molina) (4-6:1) (equivalent to 108-162 mg of Boldo leaf) Extraction solvent: Methanol 70% v/v, 10 mg Butternut Bark (Juglans cinerea L.).

Now, I thought I know quite a bit about herbal slimming aids, after all, we had a research focus on this topic for several years and have published about a dozen papers on the subject. But oddly, I cannot remember that this mixture of herbs has been shown to reduce body weight.

Perhaps Boots want to post evidence for the efficacy and safety of this product as well?

I certainly hope so, and I would instantly withdraw any hint of a suspicion that Boots are selling unproven or disproven medicines.

Where is all this going?

I have to admit that am not entirely sure myself.

I suppose all I wanted to express was that it might be unwise to throw stones when one is sitting in a glass-house – a cliché, I know, but it’s true nevertheless.

 

 

 

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:

None [except I don’t like those who easily take legal action against others]

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a truly fascinating plant with plenty of therapeutic potential. It belongs to the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and is native to southern Asia. Its main active ingredients are curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and the related compounds, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin (curcuminoids) which are secondary metabolites. Turmeric  has been used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine and has a variety of pharmacologic properties including antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic activities.

In the often weird world of alternative medicine, turmeric is currently being heavily hyped as the new panacea. Take this website, for instance; it promotes turmeric for just about any ailment known to mankind. Here is a short excerpt to give you a flavour (pun intended, turmeric is, of course, a main ingredient in many curries):

It comes at a surprise to a lot of people that herbs can be highly effective, if not more effective, than conventional medications …

To date, turmeric is one of the top researched plants. It was involved in more than 5,600 peer-reviewed and published biomedical studies. In one research project that extended over a five year period, it was found that turmeric could potentially be used in preventive and therapeutic applications. It was also noted that it has 175 beneficial effects for psychological health…

The 14 Medications it Mimics

Or should we say the 14 medications that mimic turmeric, since turmeric has been around much longer than any chemical prescription drug. Here’s a quick look at some of them:

  • Lipitor: This is a cholesterol drug that is used to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress inside of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes. When the curcuminoid component inside of turmeric is properly prepared, it can offer the same effects (according to a study published in 2008).
  • Prozac: This is an antidepressant that has been overused throughout the past decade. In a study published back in 2011, turmeric was shown to offer beneficial effects that helped to reduce depressive behaviors (using animal models).
  • Aspirin: This is a blood thinner and pain relief drug. In a study done in 1986, it was found that turmeric has similar affects, which makes it a candidate for patients that are susceptible to vascular thrombosis and arthritis.
  • Metformin: This is a drug that treats diabetes. It is used to activate AMPK (to increase uptake of glucose) and helps to suppress the liver’s production of glucose. In a study published in 2009, it was found that curcumin was 500 to 100,000 times more effective at activating AMPK ad ACC.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: This includes medications like ibuprofen, aspirin and dexamethasone, which are designed to reduce inflammation. Again, in 2004, it was proven that curcumin was an effective alternative option to these chemical drugs.
  • Oxaliplatin: This is a chemotherapy drug. A study done in 2007 showed that curcumin is very similar to the drug, acting as an antiproliferative agent in colorectal cell lines.
  • Corticosteroids: This is a steroid medication, which is used to treat inflammatory eye diseases. In 1999, it was found that curcumin was effective at managing this chronic condition. Then in 2008, curcumin was used in an animal model that proved it could also aid in therapy used to protect patients from lung transplantation-associated injuries by “deactivating” inflammatory genes.

Turmeric Fights Drug-Resistant Cancers… it’s been shown that curcumin can battle against cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation…

END OF QUOTE

As I said, turmeric is fascinating and promising, but such hype is clearly counter-productive and dangerous. As so often, the reality is much more sobering than the fantasy of uncritical quacks. Research is currently very active and has produced a host of interesting findings. Here are the conclusions (+links) of a few, recent reviews:

Overall, there is early evidence that turmeric/curcumin products and supplements, both oral and topical, may provide therapeutic benefits for skin health. However, currently published studies are limited and further studies will be essential to better evaluate efficacy and the mechanisms involved.

This meta-analysis of RCTs suggested a significant effect of curcumin in lowering circulating TNF-α concentration.

While statistical significant differences in outcomes were reported in a majority of studies, the small magnitude of effect and presence of major study limitations hinder application of these results.

Overall, scientific literature shows that curcumin possesses anti-diabetic effects and mitigates diabetes complications.

The highlighted studies in the review provide evidence of the ability of curcumin to reduce the body’s natural response to cutaneous wounds such as inflammation and oxidation. The recent literature on the wound healing properties of curcumin also provides evidence for its ability to enhance granulation tissue formation, collagen deposition, tissue remodeling and wound contraction. It has become evident that optimizing the topical application of curcumin through altering its formulation is essential to ensure the maximum therapeutical effects of curcumin on skin wounds.

What emerges from a critical reading of the evidence is that turmeric has potential in several different areas. Generally speaking, clinical trials are still thin on the ground, not of sufficient rigor and therefore not conclusive. In other words, it is far too early to state or imply that we all should rush to the next health food store and buy the supplements.

On the contrary, at this stage, I would even warn people not to be seduced by the unprofessional hype and wait until we know more – much more. There might be risks associated with ingesting turmeric at high doses over long periods of time. And there are fundamental open questions about oral intake. One recent review cautioned: …its extremely low oral bioavailability hampers its application as therapeutic agent.

WATCH THIS SPACE!

I am pleased to report that my ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME’ is growing steadily. So far, this elite club includes:

Gustav Dobos

Claudia Witt

George Lewith

John Licciardone

Time, I think, to elect another member. I was fascinated to read what the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE (I have published about this organisation before, for instance, here) writes about a former co-worker of mine, Simon Mills (those who have read my memoir will know more about him and about my struggle to disassociate me and my work from him and his activities):

Simon Mills is a member of the College of Medicine Council. He is a Cambridge graduate in medical sciences who has since 1977 been a herbal practitioner and natural therapist in Exeter. In that time he has led the main organizations for herbal medicine in the UK (the British Herbal Medicine Association, the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, and National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and served on Government and House of Lords committees. Since 1997 he has been Secretary of ESCOP, the lead herbal scientific network in Europe, that produces defining monographs on herbal medicines for the European Medicines Agency. He has also written award-winning seminal herbal medicine textbooks, notably with Kerry Bone the two editions of Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy and the Essential Book of Herbal Safety. He has long been involved in academic work having co-founded the world’s first University centre for complementary health in Exeter (1987), the first integrated health course at a UK medical school at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter (2000) and the first masters degree programme in herbal medicine in the USA (2001). He has published in many peer-reviewed scientific journals including full clinical trials with herbal medicines, and has supervised 10 successful doctorate theses. Simon is currently building a new role for healthcare practitioners as ‘health guides. With health workbooks, training programmes, community projects and websites.

It was new to me that he has ‘published in many peer-reviewed scientific journals’, so I did a Medline search and found a total of 14 articles. Most of these were comments, letters etc. I decided to identify the first 10 papers that drew some sort of conclusions about the value of alternative therapies. This is what I found (as usual, I have copied the conclusions in bold):

Short-term study on the effects of rosemary on cognitive function in an elderly population.

Pengelly A, Snow J, Mills SY, Scholey A, Wesnes K, Butler LR.

J Med Food. 2012 Jan;15(1):10-7. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2011.0005. Epub 2011 Aug 30.

The positive effect of the dose nearest normal culinary consumption points to the value of further work on effects of low doses over the longer term.

Continuous PC6 wristband acupressure for relief of nausea and vomiting associated with acute myocardial infarction: a partially randomised, placebo-controlled trial.

Dent HE, Dewhurst NG, Mills SY, Willoughby M.

Complement Ther Med. 2003 Jun;11(2):72-7.

Continuous 24-h PC6 acupressure therapy as an adjunct to standard antiemetic medication for post-MI nausea and vomiting is feasible and is well accepted and tolerated by patients. In view of its benefits, further studies are worthwhile using earlier onset of treatment.

Effect of a proprietary herbal medicine on the relief of chronic arthritic pain: a double-blind study.

Mills SY, Jacoby RK, Chacksfield M, Willoughby M.

Br J Rheumatol. 1996 Sep;35(9):874-8.

It is concluded that Reumalex has a mild analgesic effect in chronic arthritis at a level appropriate to self-medication.

Yes, there were just three such papers; perhaps the College of Medicine’s description is just a trifle misleading? As all of these arrived at positive conclusions, I think Mr Mills nevertheless deserves a place in my ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE’S HALL OF FAME.

Many cancer patients use some form of alternative therapy. Most of them combine it with conventional oncological treatments which begs the important question whether the two can interact.

The aim of this new investigation was firstly to assess prevalence of interactions between alternative medicines (AMs) and drugs for comorbidities from a large survey on melanoma patients and secondly to classify herb-drug interactions with regard to their potential to harm. Consecutive melanoma outpatients of seven skin cancer centers in Germany were asked to complete a standardized questionnaire including questions about their AM-use and their taken medication for comorbidities and cancer. Each combination of conventional drugs and AMs was evaluated for their potential of interaction.

1089 questionnaires were eligible for evaluation. From these, 61.6 % of patients reported taking drugs regularly from which 34.4 % used biological-based AMs. Risk evaluation for interaction was possible for 180 AM users who listed the names or substances they took for comorbidities. From those patients, we found 37.2 % at risk of interaction of their co-consumption of conventional drugs and AMs. Almost all patients using Chinese herbs were at risk (88.6 %).

The authors concluded that with a high rate of AM usage at risk of interactions between AMs and drugs taken for comorbidities, implementation of a regular assessment of AM usage and drugs for comorbidities is mandatory in cancer care.

On this blog, I have mentioned this problem repeatedly. For instance, I reported about a survey of 1,500 members of the German non-medically trained practitioner (NMP) associations. Its results showed that the treatments employed by NMPs were heterogeneous. Homeopathy was used by 45% of the NMPs, and 10% believed it to be a treatment directly against cancer. Herbal therapy, vitamins, orthomolecular medicine, ordinal therapy, mistletoe preparations, acupuncture, and cancer diets were used by more than 10% of the NMPs. None of the treatments were discussed with the respective physician on a regular basis. The authors concluded from these findings that many therapies provided by NMPs are biologically based and therefore may interfere with conventional cancer therapy. Thus, patients are at risk of interactions, especially as most NMPs do not adjust their therapies to those of the oncologist. Moreover, risks may arise from these CAM methods as NMPs partly believe them to be useful anticancer treatments. This may lead to the delay or even omission of effective therapies.

One problem regarding herb-drug interactions is that we currently have to rely more on speculations than on facts. The only exception is the issue of interactions with St John’s Wort (SJW). Some time ago, I reported on this blog about a study assessing how often SJW is prescribed with medications that interact dangerously with it. The researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of nationally representative data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Twenty-eight percent of SJW visits involved a drug that has a potentially dangerous interaction with SJW. These included selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines, warfarin, statins, verapamil, digoxin, and oral contraceptives. The authors concluded that SJW is frequently used in potentially dangerous combinations. Physicians should be aware of these common interactions and warn patients appropriately.

My conclusion at the time is as true and important today: physicians ought to know about the potential of herbal remedies to interact with drugs but, considering the frequency of self-prescription of such treatments, raising  consumers’ awareness of the risks associated with herbal medicines is at least as important.

The ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE SOCIETY’ claims to be a ‘a global network of medical practitioners and contributors who scour the best research and findings from around the world to provide the best advice on alternative, holistic, natural and integrative medicines and treatments for free.’

Sounds great!

They even give advice on ‘7 common diseases you can treat through natural medicine.’ This headline fascinated me, and I decided to have a closer look at what is being recommended there. The following is copied from the website which looks to me as though it was written by a naturopath. My comments appear dispersed in the original text and are in bold.

Despite an exponential research advancement in recent years, we’re finding more and more problems with conventional medicine – from reports of fraud, to terrible medicinal side effects, to bacterial tolerance to antibiotics. Thus, it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking towards more natural medicine for disease management. Many people are seeking solutions which are not only inexpensive, but are also less harmful. Did you know that a lot of the medical conditions suffered by patients today can be adequately treated with natural medicine? Here are seven diseases you can treat through natural medicine:

  1. High blood pressure/hypertension

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition most of us are really familiar with. It’s a risk factor, not a ‘disease’. Defined as the elevation of blood pressure in systemic arteries, hypertension left untreated could lead to serious, possibly fatal complications such as strokes and heart attacks. Conventional treatments for hypertension usually include a cocktail of several drugs (no, good conventional doctors start with life-style advice, if that is not successful, one adds a diruretic, and only if that does not work, one adds a further drug) consisting of vasodilators, alpha/beta blockers, and enzyme inhibitors. However, hypertension can be managed, and altogether avoided with the use of natural medicine. Alternative treatments involve lifestyle changes (e.g. intentionally working out, alcohol intake moderation), dietary measures (e.g. lowering salt intake, choosing healthier food options), and natural medicine (e.g. garlic). As pointed out already, this is the conventional approach! Unfortunately, it often does not work because it is either not sufficiently effective or the patient is non-compliant. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor (many experts would say no) role in the management of hypertension.

  1. Arthritis

Arthritis literally translated from Greek, means joint (arthro-) inflammation (-itis). There are two main categories of arthritis: inflammatory and degenerative, and they need to be managed differently. This condition is common in old patients, due to prior dietary choices (diet is not important enough to be mentioned on 1st place), and the natural wearing out of joint structures. Doctors typically prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. steroids) to reduce irritation, and pain relievers (e.g. analgesics) for managing the pain. On the other hand, natural medicine could do an equally effective job in treating arthritis, through the use of several herbs such as willow, turmeric, ginger, and capsicum. It is not true that these herbs have been shown to be of equal effectiveness. Research has also shown that lifestyle measures such as weight loss (that would be the advice of conventional doctors), and other natural treatments such as acupuncture (not very effective for degenerative arthritis and ineffective for inflammatory arthritis) and physical therapy (that is conventional medicine), also lessen pain and inflammation in patients. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of arthritis.

  1. Bronchitis

Bronchitis may be defined as the irritation, or swelling of the bronchial tubes connecting our nasal cavity to our lungs commonly cause by infections or certain allergens (that would be asthma, not bronchitis). Patients with bronchitis typically deal with breathing difficulties, coughing spells, nasal congestion, and fever. There are usual prescriptions for bronchitis, but there are also very effective natural medicine available. Natural medicine include garlic, ginger, turmeric, eucalyptus, Echinacea, and honey. None of these have been shown by good evidence to be ‘very effective’! These herbs may be prepared at home as tonics, tea, or taken as is, acting as anti-microbial agents for fighting off the infections. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of bronchitis.

  1. Boils

Boils are skin infections which occur as pus-filled pimples in various parts of the body. Despite being highly contagious and painful, boils can easily be treated with natural medicine. Some of the herbs proven to be effective in treating boils include Echinacea, turmeric, garlic, and tea tree oil, due to the presence of natural chemicals which have antibiotic capacities. There is no good evidence to support this claim. Repeated exposure to topical application of these natural medicine is guaranteed to cure your boils in no time. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of boils.

  1. Eczema

Eczema is also a skin condition resulting from allergic reactions which are typically observed as persistent rashes. The rashes are usually incredibly itchy, showing up in the most awkward places such as the inside of the knees and thighs. Thankfully, eczema can be managed by lifestyle measures (such as avoiding certain foods which elicit allergies – these measures would be entirely conventional and require conventional allergy testing to be effective), and natural medicine. These includes herbal components such as sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, evening primrose oil and chamomile. There is no good evidence to show that these therapies are effective. These natural medicine contain different active ingredients which are not only able to moisturize the affected skin, but are also able to reduce inflammation and soothe itchiness. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of eczema.

  1. Constipation

Constipation is a normal (??? why should it be normal???) medical condition in which patients are unable to empty bowels at ease. It may be caused by a wide variety of reasons such as bowel stricture, hyperparathyroidism, or simply a case of terrible (???) food choices. However, it can very easily be treated with natural medicine. Some common remedies are molasses, sesame seeds, fiber, ginger or mint tea, lemon water, prunes, castor oil (an old-fashioned and largely obsolete conventional treatment) and coffee (for none of the other treatments is there good evidence). The action of these natural medicine involves laxative effects which stimulate contractions along the colon which incidentally moves your bowels along. Conventional doctors would recommend life-style changes and would warn patients NOT to use laxatives long-term. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of constipation.

  1. Hay Fever

Allergic rhinitis, as hay fever is also known, are allergic reactions to certain particles like dust or pollen which incite coughing sprees, sneezing spells, and congested sinuses. There are very good natural medicine options for treating hay fever, which contain ingredients which act the same way as your conventional anti-histamine drugs. If they act the same way, what would be their advantage? Some of the natural medicine used to treat hay fever include chamomile, ginger, green, and peppermint teas, as well as butterbur, calendula, and grapefruit. Butterbur is the only one in this list that is supported by some evidence. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of hay fever.

In essence, none of the 7 ‘diseases’ can be treated effectively with any of the alternative treatments recommended here. ‘The best advice on alternative, holistic, natural and integrative medicines and treatments’, it seems to me, is therefore: AVOID CHARLATANS WHO TELL YOU THAT ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS ARE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE. 

On this blog, I have repeatedly tried to alert consumers and patients to the risks of herbal medicine. The risks include:

A new paper throws more light on the latter issue which has been not well-studies so far.

The objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between the use of medicinal plants and medication adherence in elderly people. The authors conducted an observational, cross-sectional study of elderly residents in Cuité-PB, Northeastern Brazil, through a household survey. A stratified proportional and systematic random sample of 240 elders was interviewed in their homes and the use of pharmaceutical medicines and of medicinal plants was assessed by direct examination. The association of medication adherence with socio-demographic, clinical, medication and use of medicinal plants was analysed with multiple logistic regression.

The results showed that medication non-adherence increases with use of herbal medicines (adjusted odds ratio 2.022, 95% CI 1.059–3.862, p = 0.03), as well as with the number of different medicinal plants used (adjusted odds ratio 1.937, 95% CI 1.265–2.965, p = 0.002).

The authors concluded that this study provides first-hand evidence that the use of herbal medicines is associated with poor medication adherence. Given the high frequency of the use of herbal medicines, further research into the mechanisms of this association is justified.

This conclusion is well-put, I think. If these findings are confirmed in other populations, we are confronted with a somewhat paradoxical situation: combining herbal and synthetic medicines can reduce adherence to the synthetic drugs and, in cases where adherence is not affected, it could increase the risk of herb/drug interactions.

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