Chinese proprietary herbal medicines (CPHMs) are a well-established and a hugely profitable part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a long history in China and elsewhere; they are used for all sorts of conditions, not least for the treatment of common cold. Many CPHMs have been listed in the ‘China national essential drug list’ (CNEDL), the official reference published by the Chinese Ministry of Health. One would hope that such a document to be based on reliable evidence – but is it?
The aim of a recent review was to provide an assessment on the potential benefits and harms of CPHMs for common cold listed in the CNEDL.
The authors of this assessment were experts from the Chinese ‘Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’ and one well-known researcher of alternative medicine from the UK. They searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, SinoMed, CNKI, VIP, China Important Conference Papers Database, China Dissertation Database, and online clinical trial registry websites from their inception to 31 March 2013 for clinical studies of CPHMs listed in the CNEDL for common cold.
Of the 33 CPHMs listed in the 2012 CNEDL for the treatment of common cold, only 7 had any type of clinical trial evidence at all. A total of 6 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and 7 case series (CSs) could be included in the assessments.
All these studies had been conducted in China and published in Chinese. All of them were burdened with poor study design and low methodological quality, and all had to be graded as being associated with a very high risk of bias.
The authors concluded that the use of CPHMs for common cold is not supported by robust evidence. Further rigorous well designed placebo-controlled, randomized trials are needed to substantiate the clinical claims made for CPHMs.
I should state that it is, in my view, most laudable that the authors draw such a relatively clear, negative conclusion. This does certainly not happen often with papers originating from China, and George Lewith, the UK collaborator in this article, is also not known for his critical attitude towards alternative medicine. But there are other, less encouraging issues here to mention.
In the discussion section of their paper, the authors mention that the CNEDL has been approved by the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and is currently regarded as the accepted reference point for the medicines used in China. They also explain that the CNEDL was officially launched and implemented in August 2009. The CNEDL is now up-dated every 3 years, and its 2012 edition contains 520 medicines, including 203 CPHMs. The CPHMs listed in CNEDL cover 137 herbal remedies for internal medicine, 11 for surgery, 20 for gynaecology, 7 for ophthalmology, 13 for otorhinolaryngology and 15 for orthopaedics and traumatology.
Moreover, the authors inform us that about 3,100 medical and clinical experts had been recruited to evaluate the safety, effectiveness and costs of CPHMs. The selection process of medicines into CNEDL was strictly in accordance with the principle that they ‘must be preventive and curative, safe and effective, affordable, easy to use, think highly of both Chinese and Western medicine’. A detailed procedure for evaluation is, however, not available because the files are confidential.
The authors finally state that their paper demonstrates that the selection of CPHMs into the CNEDL is less likely to be ‘evidence-based’ and revealed the sharp contrast between the policy and priority given to by the Chinese government to Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM).
This surely must be a benign judgement, if there ever was one! I would say that the facts disclosed in this review show that TCM seems to exist in a strange universe where commercial interests are officially allowed to reign supreme over patients’ interests and public health.
Poor sleep quality during pregnancy is a frequent problem. Drug treatment can be problematic due to possible adverse effects for mother and embryo/foetus. Many pregnant women prefer natural treatments and assume that ‘natural’ equals harmless.
In the present study, the sedative effects of Bryophyllum pinnatum were investigated. This remedy is a phytotherapeutic medication predominantly used in anthroposophic medicine. In previous clinical studies on its tocolytic effect, B. pinnatum showed a promising risk/benefit ratio for mother and child. A recent analysis of the prescribing pattern for B. pinnatum in a network of anthroposophic physicians revealed sleep disorders as one of the most frequent diagnosis.
In this prospective, multi-centre, observational study, pregnant women suffering from sleep problems were treated with B. pinnatum (350mg tablets, 50% leaf press juice, Weleda AG, Arlesheim, dosage at physician’s consideration). Sleep quality, daily sleepiness and fatigue were assessed with the aid of standardised questionnaires, at the beginning of the treatment and after 2 weeks. Possible adverse effects perceived by the patients during the treatment were recorded.
The results show that the number of wake-ups, as well as the subjective quality of sleep was significantly improved at the end of the treatment with B. pinnatum. The Epworth Sleeping Scale decreased, indicating a reduction in tiredness during the day. There was, however, no evidence for a prolongation of the sleep duration, reduction in the time to fall asleep, as well as change in the Fatigue Severity Scale after B. pinnatum. No serious adverse drug reactions were detected.
From these data, the authors concluded that B. pinnatum is a suitable treatment of sleep problems in pregnancy. The data of this study encourage further clinical investigations on the use of B. pinnatum in sleep disorders.
Clinical trials of anthroposophic remedies, i.e. remedies which are based on the school of medicine founded by Rudolf Steiner, are very rare. Therefore this trial could be important.
B. pinnatum is a plant used in traditional Tai medicine against hypertension, and to some extend this makes sense: it contains cardiac glycosides which might help lowering elevated blood pressure. The reason for its use as a hypnotic, however, is not clear.
So, is B pinnatum really a ‘suitable treatment of sleep problems in pregnancy’? I doubt it for the following reasons:
- the effects documented in this study are far from convincing,
- we would need much more solid data to issue such a general recommendation,
- cardiac glycosides can cause very serious adverse effects,
- the sample size of the study is at least one dimension too small for assuming that it is safe,
- we know nothing about its potential to cause harm to the foetus.
Personally, I find it irresponsible to draw conclusions such as the ones above on the basis of data which are flimsy to the extreme. I ask myself, to what extend wishful thinking might be a regrettable characteristic for the entire field of anthroposophic medicine.
Dietary supplements (DS) are heavily promoted usually with the claim that they have stood the test of time and that they are natural and hence harmless. Unsurprisingly, their use has become very wide-spread. A new study determined the use of DSs, factors associated with DS use, and reasons for use among U.S. college students.
College students (N = 1248) at 5 U.S. universities were surveyed. Survey questions included descriptive demographics, types and frequency of DS used, reasons for use and money spent on supplements. Supplements were classified using standard criteria. Logistic regression analyses examined relationships between demographic and lifestyle factors and DS use.
Sixty-six percent of college students surveyed used DS at least once a week, and 12% consumed 5 or more supplements a week. Forty-two percent used multivitamins/multiminerals, 18% vitamin C, 17% protein/amino acids and 13% calcium at least once a week. Factors associated with supplement use included dietary patterns, exercise, and tobacco use. Students used supplements to promote general health (73%), provide more energy (29%), increase muscle strength (20%), and enhance performance (19%).
The authors of this survey concluded that college students appear more likely to use DS than the general population and many use multiple types of supplements weekly. Habits established at a young age persist throughout life. Therefore, longitudinal research should be conducted to determine whether patterns of DS use established early in adulthood are maintained throughout life. Adequate scientific justification for widespread use of DS in healthy, young populations is lacking.
Another new study investigated the use of DSs in 334 dancers from 53 countries, who completed a digitally based 35-question survey detailing demographic information and the use of DSs. Supplement use was prevalent amongst this international cohort, with 48% reporting regular DSs use. Major motives for supplement use were to improve health, boost immunity, and reduce fatigue. Forty-five percent believed that dancing increased the need for supplementation, whilst 30% recognized that there were risks associated with DSs.
The most frequently consumed DSs were vitamin C (60%), multivitamins (67%), and caffeine (72%). A smaller group of participants declared the use of whey protein (21%) or creatine (14%). Supplements were mainly obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health-food stores. Dancers recognized their lack of knowledge in DSs use and relied on peer recommendations instead of sound evidence-based advice from acknowledged nutrition or health care professionals.
The authors concluded that this study demonstrates that DSs use is internationally prevalent amongst dancers. Continued efforts are warranted with regard to information dissemination.
Finally, a third study investigated use of DSs in patients in Japan. This survey was completed by 2732 people, including 599 admitted patients, 1154 ambulatory patients, and 979 healthy subjects who attended a seminar about DSs. At the time of the questionnaire, 20.4% of admitted patients, 39.1% of ambulatory patients, and 30.7% of healthy subjects were using DSs, which including vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal extracts, its ingredients, or food for specified health uses.
The primary purpose for use in all groups was health maintenance, whereas 3.7% of healthy subjects, 10.0% of ambulatory patients, and 13.2% of admitted patients used DSs to treat diseases. In addition, 17.7% of admitted patients and 36.8% of ambulatory patients were using DSs concomitantly with their medications. However, among both admitted patients and ambulatory patients, almost 70% did not mention DSs use to their physicians. Overall, 3.3% of all subjects realized adverse effects associated with DSs.
The authors concluded that communication between patients and physicians is important to avoid health problems associated with the use of DSs.
There is little doubt, DSs are popular with all sorts of populations and have grown into a multi billion dollar industry. There is also no doubt that the use of only very few DSs are evidence-based (and if so, in only relatively rare situations). And there can be no doubt that many DSs can do harm. What follows is simple: for the vast majority of DSs the benefits do not demonstrably out-weigh the risks.
If that is true, we have to ask ourselves: Why are they so popular?
The answer, I think, is because of the very phenomenon I am constantly trying to fight on this blog – IRRESPONSIBLE CHARLATANS PULLING WOOL OVER CONSUMERS EYES.
Guest post by Jan Oude-Aost
ADHD is a common disorder among children. There are evidence based pharmacological treatments, the best known being methylphenidate (MPH). MPH has kind of a bad reputation, but is effective and reasonably safe. The market is also full of alternative treatments, pharmacological and others, some of them under investigation, some unproven and many disproven. So I was not surprised to find a study about Ginkgo biloba as a treatment for ADHD. I was surprised, however, to find this study in the German Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, officially published by the “German Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy“ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie und Psychotherapie). The journal’s guidelines state that studies should provide new scientific results.
The study is called “Ginkgo biloba Extract EGb 761® in Children with ADHD“. EGb 761® is the key ingredient in “Tebonin®“, a herbal drug made by “Dr. Wilma Schwabe GmbH“. The abstract states:
“One possible treatment, at least for cognitive problems, might be the administration of Ginkgo biloba, though evidence is rare.This study tests the clinical efficacy of a Ginkgo biloba special extract (EGb 761®) (…) in children with ADHD (…).“
“Eine erfolgversprechende, bislang kaum untersuchte Möglichkeit zur Behandlung kognitiver Aspekte ist die Gabe von Ginkgo biloba. Ziel der vorliegenden Studie war die Prüfung klinischer Wirksamkeit (…) von Ginkgo biloba-Extrakt Egb 761® bei Kindern mit ADHS.“ (Taken from the English and German abstracts.)
The study sample (20!) was recruited among children who “did not tolerate or were unwilling“ to take MPH. The unwilling part struck me as problematic. There is likely a strong selection bias towards parents who are unwilling to give their children MPH. I guess it is not the children who are unwilling to take MPH, but the parents who are unwilling to administer it. At least some of these parents might be biased against MPH and might already favor CAMmodalities.
The authors state three main problems with “herbal therapy“ that require more empirical evidence: First of all the question of adverse reactions, which they claim occur in about 1% of cases with “some CAMs“ (mind you, not “herbal therapy“). Secondly, the question of drug interactions and thirdly, the lack of information physicians have about the CAMs their patients use.
A large part of the study is based on results of an EEG-protocol, which I choose to ignore, because the clinical results are too weak to give the EEG findings any clinical relevance.
Before looking at the study itself, let’s look at what is known about Ginkgo biloba as a drug. Ginkgo is best known for its use in patients with dementia, cognitive impairment und tinnitus. A Cochrane review from 2009 concluded:
“There is no convincing evidence that Ginkgo biloba is efficacious for dementia and cognitive impairment“ .
The authors of the current Study cite Sarris et al. (2011), a systematic review of complementary treatment of ADHD. Sarris et al. mention Salehi et al. (2010) who tested Ginkgo against MPH. MPH turned out to be much more effective than Ginkgo, but Sarris et al. argue that the duration of treatment (6 weeks) might have been too short to see the full effects of Ginkgo.
Given the above information it is unclear why Ginkgo is judged a “possible“ treatment, properly translated from German even “promising”, and why the authors state that Ginkgo has been “barely studied“.
In an unblinded, uncontrolled study with a sample likely to be biased toward the tested intervention, anything other than a positive result would be odd. In the treatment of autism there are several examples of implausible treatments that worked as long as parents knew that their children were getting the treatment, but didn’t after proper blinding (e.g. secretin).
This study’s aim was to test clinical efficacy, but the conclusion begins with how well tolerated Ginkgo was. The efficacy is mentioned subsequently: “Following administration, interrelated improvements on behavioral ratings of ADHD symptoms (…) were detected (…).“ But the way they where “detected“ is interesting. The authors used an established questionnaire (FBB-HKS) to let parents rate their children. Only the parents. The children and their teachers where not given the FBB-HKS-questionnaires, inspite of this being standard clinical practice (and inspite of giving children questionnaires to determine changes in quality of life, which were not found).
None of the three problems that the authors describe as important (adverse reactions, drug interactions, lack of information) can be answered by this study. I am no expert in statistics but it seems unlikely to me to meaningfully determine adverse effects in just 20 patients especially when adverse effects occur at a rate of 1%. The authors claim they found an incidence rate of 0,004% in “700 observation days“. Well, if they say so.
The authors conclude:
“Taken together, the current study provides some preliminary evidence that Ginkgo biloba Egb 761® seems to be well tolerated in the short term and may be a clinically useful treatment for children with ADHD. Double-blind randomized trials are required to clarify the value of the presented data.“
Given the available information mentioned earlier, one could have started with that conclusion and conducted a double blind RCT in the first place!
The trends of this preliminary open study may suggest that Ginkgo biloba Egb 761® might be considered as a complementary or alternative medicine for treating children with ADHD.“
So, why do I care? If preliminary evidence “may suggest“ that something “might be considered“ as a treatment? Because I think that this study does not answer any important questions or give us any new or useful knowledge. Following the journal’s guidelines, it should therefore not have been published. I also think it is an example of bad science. Bad not just because of the lack of critical thinking. It also adds to the misinformation about possible ADHD treatments spreading through the internet. The study was published in September. In November I found a website citing the study and calling it “clinical proof“ when it is not. But child psychiatrists will have to explain that to many parents, instead of talking about their children’s health.
I somehow got the impression that this study was more about marketing than about science. I wonder if Schwabe will help finance the necessary double-blind randomized trial…
While the previous post was about seeing a traditional herbalist (who prescribe their own herbal mixtures, tailor-made for each individual patient), this post provides essential information for those consumers who are tempted to take a commercially available herbal remedy available in pharmacies, health food shops, over the Internet etc. These remedies are usually bought by consumers and then be self-administered, or (less frequently) they might be prescribed/recommended/sold by a clinician such as a doctor, naturopath, chiropractor etc. Typically, they contain just one (or relatively few) herbal extracts and are used under similar assumptions as conventional medicines: one (hopefully well-tested) remedy is employed for treating a defined condition, diagnosed according to validated and generally accepted criteria (for instance, St John’s Wort for depression or Devil’s claw for back pain). This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘rational phytotherapy’ – it is certainly more rational than the traditional herbalism referred to in my previous post. The manufacture, promotion and sale of commercial herbal remedies (in many countries marketed as ‘dietary supplements’) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Here are a few essentials you ought to know before you decide to take such an herbal remedy:
- Many people claim that herbal medicine is effective because many of our modern drugs are based on plants. The latter part of this claim is true, of course, but this does not necessarily mean that herbal remedies are effective. The drugs derived from plants contain one single, well-defined, extensively researched molecule (by definition, this makes them conventional drugs and not herbal remedies), while herbal remedies are based on entire (parts of) plants; thus they contain many pharmacologically active molecules. This often means that it is difficult or impossible to tell what dose of which ingredient is being administered and what pharmacological actions can be expected.
- Even though national regulations differ greatly, herbal remedies generally do not have to be supported by evidence for efficacy in order to be legally available. This means that a given remedy might or might not have been tested in clinical trials to determine whether it works for the condition advertised. In fact, only very few (less than 30, I estimate) herbal remedies are supported by sound evidence for efficacy; thousands do not meet this criterion.
- The extremely wide-spread notion that herbal remedies are by definition natural and therefore safe is nothing but a promotional myth. Plants contain many chemicals which can have pharmacological activity. This means they might be therapeutic, but it also means that they might be toxic (traditionally the most powerful poisons originated from the plant kingdom). If anyone uses the ‘natural = safe fallacy’ remind him/her of hemlock, poison ivy etc.
- In addition to potential toxicity of an herbal ingredient, there are other important safety issues to be considered. Most importantly, herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medicines. For instance, St John’s Wort (one of the best-studied herbal remedies in this respect) powerfully interacts with about 50% of all prescription drugs – in fact, it lowers their level in the blood which means that a patient on anti-coagulants would lose her anti-coagulant protection and might suffer from a (potentially fatal) blood clot.
- In many countries, including the US, the regulation of herbal remedies is so lax, that there is no guarantee that an herbal remedy which is being legally sold is safe. The regulators are only allowed to intervene once there are reports of adverse effects. This means that the burden of proof of safety is effectively reversed which obviously exposes consumers to incalculable risks.
- The quality of the herbal product is equally poorly regulated in most countries. A plethora of investigations in the US, for instance, has shown that the dose of the herbal ingredient printed on the label of a commercial product can range virtually from 0 – 100%. Similarly there is little safe-guard that the ingredients listed on the label correspond to the ones in the preparation. This means that it is worth purchasing not just well-researched herbal remedies but also those marketed by high quality manufacturers via respectable outlets.
- Any regulation of herbal remedies, even the European one that is often praised as protecting consumers adequately, is null and void once consumers go on the Internet and purchase their herbal remedies from one of the many dubious sources found there in truly alarming profusion. Bogus claims, inferior quality and even outright dangerous products abound, and it is often impossible to tell the acceptable from the fraudulent product.
Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.
- Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
- Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
- Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
- Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
- Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
- Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
- The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.
I know, I have written about this guy before – and I am likely to do so again – he is just too outstanding to pass by!
A few days ago, he was in the headlines again: the Conservative health committee member David Tredinnick insisted that herbal medicine and even astrology should be given to patients in order to plug a growing hole in the NHS-budget: “I have referred to the fact that in some cultures astrology is part of healthcare because they need to have a voice and I’ve got up and said that,” he told Channel Four News. “But I also think we can reduce the bill by using a whole range of alternative medicine including herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy…We could probably save five per cent of the [NHS] budget.”
Unbelievably, a man with such views is a member of the science and technology committee! This really does instil trust in politics!!!
His track record regarding the promotion of quackery might even dwarf that of Prince Charles; earlier this year he told MPs that astrology should be used to replace some “conventional” medicines on the NHS: “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told the Commons. “I hope that in future we stop looking just at increasing the supply of drugs and consider the way that complementary and alternative medicine can reduce the demand for drugs, reduce pressures on the health service, increase patient satisfaction, and make everyone in this country happier.”
Speaking recently while thousands of NHS workers were on strike, he defended their pay freeze, stating that NHS’s budget was “finite”. However, asked whether he planned to take his own upcoming 9% pay rise, he refused to answer: “I’m not getting drawn on MPs pay… I’m not answering that question on this programme because we’re dealing with the health service.” Pushed further, he suggested that the rise was necessary in order to make MPs “good public servants… All members of parliament will be given a pay rise which is been set by an independent authority. Most of those members of parliament will take that pay rise because that is what is deemed necessary to have good public servants,” he insisted.
But is he really a “good public servant” ???
Addressing parliament about its ‘evidence check’ on homeopathy which came out squarely against it, Tredinnick once stated: “It is my belief that the advice the Clerks provided to the Science and Technology Committee Chairman was inadequate, in that the evidence taken by the Committee in its evidence check on homeopathy was biased, as they did not call representatives of the homeopathic profession and instead chose a professor who did not represent the alternative medicine world. They chose the one person who would give an answer that suited those who were in opposition.” The professor he refers to is Edzard Ernst, I think! When I was invited to give evidence to the committee, Tredinnick was in the audience; I saw him as we were waiting to go in and even had a chat with him. So, he must remember that sitting next to me were several defenders of homeopathy, amongst them the Queen’s homeopath himself.
Perhaps Tredinnick just forgot!
He couldn’t be lying, could he?
No, a good public servant wouldn’t do that!
Many experts have warned us that, when we opt for dietary supplements, we might get more than we bargained for. A recent article reminded us that the increased availability and use of botanical dietary supplements and herbal remedies among consumers has been accompanied by an increased frequency of adulteration of these products with synthetic pharmaceuticals. Unscrupulous producers may add drugs and analogues of various classes, such as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, weight loss, hypoglycemic, antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory agents, or anabolic steroids, to develop or intensify biological effects of dietary supplements or herbal remedies. The presence of such adulterated products in the marketplace is a worldwide problem and their consumption poses health risks to consumers.
Other authors recently warned that these products are often ineffective, adulterated, mislabeled, or have unclear dosing recommendations, and consumers have suffered injury and death as a consequence. When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, it stripped the Food and Drug Administration of its premarket authority, rendering regulatory controls too weak to adequately protect consumers. State government intervention is thus warranted. This article reviews studies reporting on Americans’ use of dietary supplements marketed for weight loss or muscle building, notes the particular dangers these products pose to the youth, and suggests that states can build on their historical enactment of regulatory controls for products with potential health consequences to protect the public and especially young people from unsafe and mislabeled dietary supplements.
A new study has shown that these problems are not just theoretical but are real and common.
Twenty-four products suspected of containing anabolic steroids and sold in fitness equipment shops in the UK were analyzed for their qualitative and semi-quantitative content using full scan gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), accurate mass liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD), UV-Vis, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In addition, X-ray crystallography enabled the identification of one of the compounds, where reference standard was not available.
Of the 24 products tested, 23 contained steroids including known anabolic agents; 16 of these contained steroids that were different to those indicated on the packaging and one product contained no steroid at all. Overall, 13 different steroids were identified; 12 of these are controlled in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Several of the products contained steroids that may be considered to have considerable pharmacological activity, based on their chemical structures and the amounts present.
The authors concluded that such adulteration could unwittingly expose users to a significant risk to their health, which is of particular concern for naïve users.
The Internet offers thousands of supplements for sale; specifically for bodybuilders there are hundreds of supplements all claiming things that are untrue or untested. The lax regulations that exist in this area seem to be often ignored completely. I think it is important to inform customers that most supplements are a waste of money and some even a waste of health.
If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:
- one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
- they interact with prescribed drugs,
- they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
- they are adulterated with prescription drugs.
There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:
German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.
A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs
US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.
Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.
Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.
So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.
One alternative therapy that I have so far almost entirely neglected is Ayurveda. It is said to be one of the fastest growing system within this sector. Ayurvedic healing includes herbs, nutrition, panchakarma cleansing, acupressure massage, Yoga, Sanskrit, and Jyotish (Vedic astrology). The website of the ‘Choppra Center’ explains: Recognizing that human beings are part of nature, Ayurveda describes three fundamental energies that govern our inner and outer environments: movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Wind), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth), these primary forces are responsible for the characteristics of our mind and body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these three forces that shapes our nature. If Vata is dominant in our system, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.
However, the evidence for its effectiveness is not overwhelming. In 2007, we published a systematic review of Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Seven studies met our inclusion criteria. Trials tested either Ayurvedic medicine against placebo or other Ayurvedic medicines. Of 3 placebo-controlled RCTs, one high-quality trial did not show benefit of the active treatment against placebo, while another incompletely reported study indicated beneficial effects of an Ayurvedic medicine. A further incompletely reported study showed no significant difference. The remaining 4 trials were difficult to interpret because they tested an Ayurvedic medicine against other Ayurvedic medicines whose effects were not proven. We concluded that there is a paucity of RCTs of Ayurvedic medicines for RA. The existing RCTs fail to show convincingly that such treatments are effective therapeutic options for RA.
Because of this paucity of reliable evidence, any new assessments are welcome.
The aim of this article was to review and meta-analyze the effectiveness and safety of different Ayurvedic interventions in patients with osteoarthritis (OA). 138 electronic databases were searched through August 2013. Randomized controlled trials, randomized crossover studies, cluster-randomized trials, and non-randomized controlled clinical trials were eligible. Adults with pre-diagnosed OA were included as participants.
Interventions were included as Ayurvedic, if they were explicitly labeled as such. The main outcome measures were pain, physical function, and global improvement. Risk of bias was assessed using the Cochrane risk of bias tool.
19 randomized and 14 non-randomized controlled trials on 12 different drugs and 3 non-pharmaceutical interventions with a total of 2,952 patients were included. For the compound preparation, Rumalaya, large and apparently unbiased effects beyond placebo were found for pain (standardized mean difference [SMD] -3.73; 95 % confidence interval [CI] -4.97, -2.50; P < 0.01) and global improvement (risk ratio 12.20; 95 % CI 5.83, 25.54; P < 0.01).
There was also some evidence that effects of the herbal compound preparation Shunti-Guduchi are comparable to those of glucosamine for pain (SMD 0.08; 95 % CI -0.20, 0.36; P = 0.56) and function (SMD 0.15; 95 % CI -0.12, 0.36; P = 0.41).
Based on single trials, positive effects were found for the compound preparations RA-11, Reosto, and Siriraj Wattana. For Boswellia serrata, Lepidium Sativum, a Boswellia serrata containing multicomponent formulation and the compounds Nirgundi Taila, Panchatikta Ghrita Guggulu, and Rhumayog, and for non-pharmacological interventions like Ayurvedic massage, steam therapy, and enema, no evidence for significant effects against potential methodological bias was found.
No severe adverse events were observed in any of the trials.
The authors concluded that the drugs Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi seem to be safe and effective drugs for treatment of OA-patients, based on these data. However, several limitations relate to clinical research on Ayurveda. Well-planned, well-conducted and well-published trials are warranted to improve the evidence for Ayurvedic interventions.
I am, of course, pleased that other too have noticed the paucity of good evidence and recommend more and better research into this area. There are, however, several things that worry me about this systematic review:
- How can there be a total absence of adverse effects? Even placebos would generate some.
- The conclusion that Rumalaya and Shunti-Guduchi are safe does not seem justified on the basis of just a few trials.
- My own review found quite encouraging effects for Boswellia serrate.
- 138 electronic databases? I did not even know that so many existed!
- I am also concerned by the way the treatments found to be ‘safe and effective’ are being promoted on the internet:
Rumalaya is a phytopharmaceutical formulation that relieves joint and bone ache associated with various orthopedic ailments. Its natural ingredients possess potent anti-inflammatory properties that alleviate pain. As an immunomodulator, Rumalaya modulates both the humoral and cell-mediated immune response to aches and pain. The medicine has strong anti-arthritic properties that work to combat arthritis.
- Rheumatic arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Cervical and lumbar spondylosis
- Frozen shoulder
- Traumatic inflammatory conditions like fibrositis, bursitis, synovitis, capsulitis, tenosynovitis, myositis and sciatica.
I fail to see good evidence to support most of these claims.
Lastly, I find that the authors fail to warn the public in sufficiently strong terms of some of the drawbacks of Ayurvedic medicines. Many of them seem not to be safe. One of several problems is that they have been shown to be often contaminated/adulterated with toxic substances such as heavy metals.
My conclusion about the value of Ayurvedic medicines is therefore not so optimistic: EFFICACY IS USUALLY MORE THAN DOUBTFUL, WHILE RISKS ARE WELL-DOCUMENTED.