MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

My most frequently cited paper was published by Angelo Izzo and myself in 2001. It has so far been cited 1612 times. Here is its abstract:

Despite the widespread use of herbal medicines, documented herb-drug interactions are sparse. We have reviewed the literature to determine the possible interactions between the seven top-selling herbal medicines (ginkgo, St John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto and kava) and prescribed drugs. Literature searches were performed using the following databases: Medline (via Pubmed), Cochrane Library, Embase and phytobase (all from their inception to July 2000). All data relating to herb-drug interactions were included regardless of whether they were based on case reports, case series, clinical trials or other types of investigation in humans. In vitro experiments were excluded. Data were extracted by the first author and validated by the second author. 41 case reports or case series and 17 clinical trials were identified.

The results indicate that St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) lowers blood concentrations of cyclosporin, amitriptyline, digoxin, indinavir, warfarin, phenprocoumon and theophylline; furthermore it causes intermenstrual bleeding, delirium or mild serotonin syndrome, respectively, when used concomitantly with oral contraceptives (ethinylestradiol/desogestrel), loperamide or selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (sertaline, paroxetine, nefazodone). Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) interactions include bleeding when combined with warfarin, raised blood pressure when combined with a thiazide diuretic and coma when combined with trazodone. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) lowers blood concentrations of alcohol and warfarin, and induces mania if used concomitantly with phenelzine. Garlic (Allium sativum) changes pharmacokinetic variables of paracetamol, decreases blood concentrations of warfarin and produces hypoglycaemia when taken with chlorpropamide. Kava (Piper methysticum) increases ‘off periods in Parkinson patients taking levodopa and can cause a semicomatose state when given concomitantly with alprazolam. No interactions were found for echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, E. pallida) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).

In conclusion, interactions between herbal medicines and synthetic drugs exist and can have serious clinical consequences. Healthcare professionals should ask their patients about the use of herbal products and consider the possibility of herb-drug interactions.

The article was so successful that the journal ‘DRUGS’ asked us to publish an update. As the journal is highly respected we obliged with pleasure; here is the abstract of the update of 2009:

The concomitant use of herbal medicines and pharmacotherapy is wide spread. We have reviewed the literature to determine the possible interactions between seven popular herbal medicines (ginkgo, St John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto and kava) and conventional drugs. Literature searches were performed using MEDLINE, Cochrane Library and EMBASE and we identified 128 case reports or case series, and 80 clinical trials. Clinical trials indicate that St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), via cytochrome P450 (CYP) and/or P-glycoprotein induction, reduces the plasma concentrations (and/or increases the clearance) of alprazolam, amitriptyline, atorvastatin, chlorzoxazone, ciclosporin, debrisoquine, digoxin, erythromycin, fexofenadine, gliclazide, imatinib, indinavir, irinotecan, ivabradine, mephenytoin, methadone, midazolam, nifedipine, omeprazole, oral contraceptives, quazepam, simvastatin, tacrolimus, talinolol, verapamil, voriconazole and warfarin. Case reports or case series suggest interactions of St John’s wort with adrenergic vasopressors, anaesthetics, bupropion, buspirone, ciclosporin, eletriptan, loperamide, nefazodone, nevirapine, oral contraceptives, paroxetine, phenprocoumon, prednisone, sertraline, tacrolimus, theophylline, tibolone, tryptophan, venlafaxine and warfarin. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) decreases the plasma concentrations of omeprazole, ritonavir and tolbutamide. Clinical cases indicate interactions of ginkgo with antiepileptics, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), diuretics, ibuprofen, risperidone, rofecoxib, trazodone and warfarin. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) may interact with phenelzine and warfarin. Kava (Piper methysticum) increases the clearance of chlorzoxazone (a CYP2E1 substrate) and may interact with alprazolam, levodopa and paroxetine. Garlic (Allium sativum) interacts with chlorpropamide, fluindione, ritonavir and warfarin; it also reduces plasma concentrations of chlorzoxazone (a CYP2E1 probe). Echinacea might affect the clearance of caffeine (a CYP1A2 probe) and midazolam (a CYP3A4 probe). No interactions have been reported for saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Numerous interactions between herbal medicines and conventional drugs have been documented. While the significance of many interactions is uncertain, several interactions, particularly those with St John’s wort, may have serious clinical consequences.

Angelo Izzo is a lovely man and a highly skilled pharmacologist. He came to my department in 2000 as a guest researcher (on his own funds) and worked with us for several months. This is how the 2001 paper was created. After he returned to his native Naples, Italy, he became a professor of pharmacology with a special interest in plant pharmacology. He has published many further important papers and, together with his Italian colleagues, a most useful book entitled ‘Phytotherapy: A Quick Reference to Herbal Medicine‘. I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in herbal medicine.

The subject of herb-drug interactions is in my view hugely important. When Angelo and I first approached it in 2001, it was woefully under-researched; in that year, there were just 37 Medline-listed papers on the subject. This has now increased very significantly; since 2011 there are about 150 articles on the topic each year. It is tempting to think that Angelo (and I) had a tiny influence on this positive development.

2 Responses to Herb-drug interactions: one of the most important topics in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)

  • The herbs have been around since the beginning of time. It should be the responsibility of the drug manufacturer to determine all herb drug interactions and make their data public. That should slow them down a bit.

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