herbal medicine

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We have looked at curcumin several (tumeric) times before (see here, here and here). It seems to have a fascinating spectrum of pharmacological activities. But do they translate into clinical usefulness? To answer this question, we obviously need clinical trials. Unfortunately, not many have become available. Here are two recent studies:

Due to the potential benefits of curcumin in the ischemic heart disease, this study was performed to evaluate whether pretreatment with curcumin may reduce myocardial injury following elective percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). A randomized clinical trial was performed on 110 patients undergoing elective PCI. The intervention group (n = 55) received a single dose of 480 mg nanomicelle curcumin orally and the standard treatment before PCI, while the control group (n = 55) received only the standard treatment., Serum concentrations of CK-MB and troponin I was measured before, 8 and 24 h after the procedure to assess myocardial damage during PCI. The results showed that the raise of CK-MB in curcumin group was half of the control group (4 vs. 8 cases) but was not significant. There were no significant differences in CK-MB levels at 8 (P = .24) and 24 h (P = .37) after PCI between the curcumin and the control group. No significant difference was also found in troponin I levels at 8 (P = 1.0) and 24 h (P = .35) after PCI between the groups. This study did not support the potential cardioprotective benefit of curcumin against pre-procedural myocardial injury in patients undergoing elective PCI.

Ground and mashed turmeric

Inflammation along with oxidative stress has an important role in the pathophysiology of unstable angina which leads to acute myocardial infarction, arrhythmias and eventually heart failure. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects and thereby, it may reduce cardiovascular complications. This randomized controlled trial aimed to investigate the effects of curcumin on the prevention of atrial and ventricular arrhythmias and heart failure in patients with unstable angina.

Materials and Methods:

Forty patients with unstable angina who met the trial inclusion and exclusion criteria, participated in this double-blind randomized clinical trial. The patients were randomized into two groups: curcumin (80 mg/day for 5days) and placebo (80 mg/day for 5days). Cardiac function was evaluated by two-dimensional echocardiography devices at baseline (immediately after hospitalization) and 5 days after the onset of the trial. Atrial and ventricular arrhythmias were recorded by Holter monitors in cardiology ward, Ghaem academic hospital, Mashhad, Iran. Progression to heart failure, myocardial infarction, and pulmonary and cardiopulmonary resuscitation events as well as mortality were recorded daily throughout the study.


There were no significant differences between the two groups in atrial and ventricular arrhythmias (p=0.2), and other echocardiographic parameters (Ejection fraction, E, A, E/A ratio, Em, and pulmonary artery pressure) at baseline and five days after the start of the trial.


Nanocurcumin administered at the dose of 80 mg/day for five days had no effect in the incidence of cardiovascular complications in patients with unstable angina.

Clinical trials are not a good tool for proving a negative; they rarely can prove that a therapy is totally useless. Therefore, we cannot be sure that the many fascinating pharmacological activities of curcumin do not, after all, translate into some clinical benefit. However, what we can say with a high degree of certainty is this: currently there is no good evidence to show that curcumin is effective in treating any human condition.

Perhaps there is a more general lesson here about herbal medicine. Many plants have exiting pharmacological activities such as anti-biotic or anti-cancer activity which can be shown in-vitro. These are then hyped by entrepreneurs and enthusiasts of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Such hype fools many consumers and is thus good for business. But in-vitro activity does not necessarily mean that the therapy is clinically useful. There are many reasons for this, e.g. toxicity, lack of absorption. The essential test is always the clinical trial.


An article in the Sydney Morning Herald might be interesting to some readers. It informs us that, after more than 25 years of running, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) intends to stop offering its degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). A review of the Chinese Medicine Department found it should be wound up at the end of 2021 because

  • it was no longer financially viable,
  • did not produce enough research,
  • and did not fit with the “strategic direction” of the science faculty.

The UTS’s Chinese medicine clinic, which offers acupuncture and herbal treatments, would also close. Students who don’t finish by the end of 2021 will either move to another health course, or transfer to another university (Chinese medicine is also offered by the University of Western Sydney, RMIT in Melbourne, and several private colleges).

TCM “is a historical tradition that pre-dated the scientific era,” said the president of Friends of Science, Associate Professor Ken Harvey. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at that using modern scientific techniques. The problem is people don’t, they tend to teach it like it’s an established fact. If I was a scientifically-orientated vice chancellor I would worry about having a course in my university that didn’t have much of a research profile in traditional Chinese medicine.”

But a spokesman for the University of Technology Sydney said the debate over the scientific validity of Chinese medicine had nothing to do with the decision, and was “in no way a reflection of an institutional bias against complementary health care”. Personally, I find this statement surprising. Should the scientific validity of a subject not be a prime concern of any university?

In this context, may I suggest that the UTS might also have a critical look at their ‘AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH CENTRE IN COMPLEMENTARY AND INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE‘. They call themselves ‘the first centre worldwide dedicated to public health and health services research on complementary and integrative medicine’. Judging from the centre director’s publications, this means publishing one useless survey after another.

As most of us know, the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) can be problematic; its use in children is often most problematic:

In this context, the statement from the ‘Spanish Association Of Paediatrics Medicines Committee’ is of particular value and importance:

Currently, there are some therapies that are being practiced without adjusting to the available scientific evidence. The terminology is confusing, encompassing terms such as “alternative medicine”, “natural medicine”, “complementary medicine”, “pseudoscience” or “pseudo-therapies”. The Medicines Committee of the Spanish Association of Paediatrics considers that no health professional should recommend treatments not supported by scientific evidence. Also, diagnostic and therapeutic actions should be always based on protocols and clinical practice guidelines. Health authorities and judicial system should regulate and regularize the use of alternative medicines in children, warning parents and prescribers of possible sanctions in those cases in which the clinical evolution is not satisfactory, as well responsibilities are required for the practice of traditional medicine, for health professionals who act without complying with the “lex artis ad hoc”, and for the parents who do not fulfill their duties of custody and protection. In addition, it considers that, as already has happened, Professional Associations should also sanction, or at least reprobate or correct, those health professionals who, under a scientific recognition obtained by a university degree, promote the use of therapies far from the scientific method and current evidence, especially in those cases in which it is recommended to replace conventional treatment with pseudo-therapy, and in any case if said substitution leads to a clinical worsening that could have been avoided.

Of course, not all SCAM professions focus on children. The following, however, treat children regularly:

  • acupuncturists
  • anthroposophical doctors
  • chiropractors
  • craniosacral therapists
  • energy healers
  • herbalists
  • homeopaths
  • naturopaths
  • osteopaths

I believe that all SCAM providers who treat children should consider the above statement very carefully. They must ask themselves whether there is good evidence that their treatments generate more good than harm for their patients. If the answer is not positive, they should stop. If they don’t, they should realise that they behave unethically and quite possibly even illegally.

This image caught my eye on facebook. It links to an article that makes a multitude of claims for a dietary supplement by the name of ‘smarter curcumin’:

Promotes Comfort & Flexibility

Studies have shown that curcumin may work by reducing certain key inflammation-promoting enzymes in the body. In some studies curcumin performed well in promoting comfort and flexibility without the side-effects; providing a natural supplement alternative. Athletes and weekend warriors alike are also using it for muscle and joint health recovery, too.

Supports Healthy Joints

Antioxidants play a role in keeping our joints healthy. Your body uses antioxidants to combat free radicals. Free radicals are unstable particles that are created as a result of millions of chemical reactions in the body. They can cause oxidative stress and damage on a cellular level. When scientists examine the blood and joint fluid of patients that are suffering with joint discomfort, often times there is an increased activity of free radicals and lower levels of antioxidants. Curcumin being rich in antioxidants, can give you a healthy supply.

Age-Reducing Beauty – Skin, Hair, and Body

Curcumin, being a very powerful natural antioxidant, helps reduce and neutralize free radicals, which damage and destroy your cells and DNA causing accelerated aging. Since most ageing disorders are driven by oxidative stress, this makes curcumin a very important daily supplement for aging adults.

Healthy Immune Balance

Your immune system is a network of various organs, tissues, and cells that work together to protect your body. Curcumin not only helps to enhance the responses of certain antibodies and cells within the immune system but may also help downregulate the expression of certain proinflammatory substances.

Promotes Cardio Health

A healthy heart consists of many factors, especially eating healthy and routine exercise. Adding curcumin as part of your healthy diet may have many benefits to protect your heart. Oxidized LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) particles (that have been disrupted by free radicals) may produce inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Studies suggest that the antioxidant effects of curcumin can help fight those free radicals.

Improves Digestion

Curcumin has been shown to calm the digestive system, helping to relieve gas, bloating, and other stomach and bowel issues. It works differently than probiotics or enzymes – naturally soothing the gut, and reducing the overproduction of acid.

Support Liver Health

Your liver plays an important role in stabilizing and balancing the maintenance of your body. The health of your liver can be directly related to oxidative stress and proinflammatory substances. Curcumin may help boost antioxidant defenses to help the liver detoxify and restore balance.

Supports Brain Health

The connection between inflammation and cognitive health cannot be overstated. Neurons are especially susceptible to inflammation and the release of inflammatory compounds in the body can be neurotoxic. Curcumin may help protect those precious brain cells.


What fascinates me here is not so much the plethora of therapeutic claims. As far as I can see, most of them are not supported by what I would call good evidence. But I have grown so used to bogus claims in SCAM, that they rarely make me bat an eyelash.

What fascinates me most is the extraordinary picture evidently designed to attract our attention. Many people might have no idea what it depicts, other than a running leopard in a strange environment. Others will realise that the environment is an artery, and the chasing animal therefore seems to imply that the supplement enhances arterial blood flow.

But why? There is no evidence that curcumin has this effect, and the above therapeutic claims are largely unrelated to improvements of the blood circulation.

The artery is filled with red cells in their typical disc shape. It is, however, a shape red cells never have while submitted to flow in arteries. While circulating, they tend to attain a parachute-like shape:

Red cells form a disc shape only when they are motionless. Perhaps the picture really implies that curcumin generates a stagnation of blood flow? No, this is also not in line with reality; in stagnant blood, red cells aggregate and look like this:

So, you see why this image is puzzling. It seems to be aimed at people who are aware that it depicts something medical, yet too ignorant to realise that almost everything is wrong with it.

And why would anyone design an image like this? Could it be that only people naïve enough to think this picture makes any sense are likely to believe the tall tales offered in the text?

Green tea is said to have numerous health benefits. Recently, a special green tea, matcha tea, is gaining popularity and is claimed to be more powerful than simple green tea. Matcha tea consumption is said to lead to higher intake of green tea phytochemicals compared to regular green tea.

But what is matcha tea? This article explains:

The word matcha literally means “powdered tea”. Drinking a cup or two of the tea made from this powder could help you tackle your day feeling clear, motivated and energized, rather than foggy, stressed out, and succumbing to chaos.

Matcha tea leaves are thrown a lot of shade (literally). They’re grown in the dark. The shade growing process increases matcha’s nutrients, especially chlorophyll, a green plant pigment that allows plants to absorb energy from sunlight. Chlorophyll is rich in antioxidants, and gives matcha it’s electrifying green colour. Shade growing also increases the amount of L-theanine, which is the amino acid known for promoting mental clarity, focus, and a sense of calm. It’s called nature’s “Xanax” for a reason.

The high amino acid content is also what gives matcha it’s signature umami taste. Umami is the “fifth” taste that describes the savory flavor of foods like miso, parmesan cheese, chicken broth, spinach, and soy sauce. You know you’ve got a premium matcha when you taste balanced umami flavors, hints of creaminess, and the slightest taste of fresh cut grass. You shouldn’t need to add any sweetener to enjoy sipping it. When choosing a high quality matcha powder, it’s important to remember: a strong umami flavour = higher in amino acids = the more L-theanine you’ll receive.

Once matcha leaves are harvested, they get steamed, dried, and ground up into a fine powder that you can mix with hot or cold water. The key difference here is that you’re actually consuming the nutrients from the entire leaf— which is most concentrated in antioxidants, amino acids, and umami flavour. This is unlike traditional brewed tea, where you’re only drinking the dissolvable portions of the leaf that have been steeped in water.

The article also names 5 effects of matcha tea:

1. Promotes Relaxation, Mood, and Mental Focus

2. Supports Healthy Cognitive Function

3. Supports Detoxification

4. Fights Physical Signs of Aging

5. Promotes a Healthy Heart

None of the sources provided do actually confirm that matcha tea conveys any of these benefits in humans. My favourite reference provided by the author is the one that is supposed to show that matcha tea is a detox remedy for humans. The article provided is entitled Low-dose dietary chlorophyll inhibits multi-organ carcinogenesis in the rainbow trout. Who said that SCAM-peddlers have no sense of humour?

Joking aside, is there any evidence at all to show that matcha tea has any health effects in humans? I found two clinical trials that tested this hypothesis.

Trial No1:

Intake of the catechin epigallocatechin gallate and caffeine has been shown to enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation. Matcha green tea powder contains catechins and caffeine and is consumed as a drink. We examined the effect of Matcha green tea drinks on metabolic, physiological, and perceived intensity responses during brisk walking. A total of 13 females (age: 27 ± 8 years, body mass: 65 ± 7 kg, height: 166 ± 6 cm) volunteered to participate in the study. Resting metabolic equivalent (1-MET) was measured using Douglas bags (1-MET: 3.4 ± 0.3 ml·kg-1·min-1). Participants completed an incremental walking protocol to establish the relationship between walking speed and oxygen uptake and individualize the walking speed at 5- or 6-MET. A randomized, crossover design was used with participants tested between Days 9 and 11 of the menstrual cycle (follicular phase). Participants consumed three drinks (each drink made with 1 g of Matcha premium grade; OMGTea Ltd., Brighton, UK) the day before and one drink 2 hr before the 30-min walk at 5- (n = 10) or 6-MET (walking speed: 5.8 ± 0.4 km/hr) with responses measured at 8-10, 18-20, and 28-30 min. Matcha had no effect on physiological and perceived intensity responses. Matcha resulted in lower respiratory exchange ratio (control: 0.84 ± 0.04; Matcha: 0.82 ± 0.04; p < .01) and enhanced fat oxidation during a 30-min brisk walk (control: 0.31 ± 0.10; Matcha: 0.35 ± 0.11 g/min; p < .01). Matcha green tea drinking can enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation in females. However, when regular brisk walking with 30-min bouts is being undertaken as part of a weight loss program, the metabolic effects of Matcha should not be overstated.

Trial No 2:

Matcha tea is gaining popularity throughout the world in recent years and is frequently referred to as a mood-and-brain food. Previous research has demonstrated that three constituents present in matcha tea, l-theanine, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and caffeine, affect mood and cognitive performance. However, to date there are no studies assessing the effect of matcha tea itself. The present study investigates these effects by means of a human intervention study administering matcha tea and a matcha containing product. Using a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind study, 23 consumers participated in four test sessions. In each session, participants consumed one of the four test products: matcha tea, matcha tea bar (each containing 4g matcha tea powder), placebo tea, or placebo bar. The assessment was performed at baseline and 60min post-treatment. The participants performed a set of cognitive tests assessing attention, information processing, working memory, and episodic memory. The mood state was measured by means of a Profile of Mood States (POMS). After consuming the matcha products compared to placebo versions, there were mainly significant improvements in tasks measuring basic attention abilities and psychomotor speed in response to stimuli over a defined period of time. In contrast to expectations, the effect was barely present in the other cognitive tasks. The POMS results revealed no significant changes in mood. The influence of the food matrix was demonstrated by the fact that on most cognitive performance measures the drink format outperformed the bar format, particularly in tasks measuring speed of spatial working memory and delayed picture recognition. This study suggests that matcha tea consumed in a realistic dose can induce slight effects on speed of attention and episodic secondary memory to a low degree. Further studies are required to elucidate the influences of the food matrix.

Not impressed?

Me neither!

However, I was impressed when I looked up the costs of matcha tea: £17.95 for 30 g of powder does not exactly seem to be a bargain. So, matcha tea does after all help some people, namely all those engaged in flogging it to the gullible SCAM fraternity.


Kampo, the traditional Japanese herbal medicine, developed out of traditional Chinese herbal medicine after it was introduced into Japan in the 7th century. In the early 20th century, Kampo was further influenced by modern Western medicine and science. The Kampo system is a pragmatic and simplified version of Chinese herbal medicine. Kampo medicines are standardised and not normally individualised as in Chinese herbal medicine. They are based on the symptoms of the patient, interpreted in the tradition of Kampo. Kampo diagnostic criteria consider hypofunction and hyperfunction, heat and cold, superficies and interior, and yin and yang.

Today, Kampō is fully integrated into the Japanese national health care system, and numerous Kampo preparations are registered in Japan and reimbursable from public funds. In Japan, Kampo is thus not a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but outside this country it clearly is.

Standardised Kampo formulas contain mixtures of herbal ingredients. They are manufactured under proper quality control. The most commonly used plants include liquorice, ginger and Chinese peony root. Most Japanese doctors routinely prescribe Kampo medicines, and most patients combine Kampo with Western medicine. Since 2002, the teaching of Kampo has been included in Japanese curricula of medical and pharmacy education. The efficacy of Kampo medicines is often less solidly documented than one would hope or expect. There is a remarkable shortage of high-quality clinical trials.

As Kampo medicines contain pharmacologically active ingredients, they can also cause adverse effects and might interact with synthetic drugs. Yet, the risks of Kampo are currently woefully under-investigated. And this is why an analysis of adverse events associated with Kampo formulations that was just published is particularly important.

The researchers obtained reports of adverse events associated with ethical Kampo formulations from the domestic adverse-event data from July 30, 2003, to March 31, 2018. Adverse events were then categorized, and the relationships between categories of adverse events and crude drugs were analysed.

There were 4,232 reported adverse events associated with Kampo. They related to liver injury, 1,193; lung injury, 1,177; pseudoaldosteronism, 889; mesenteric phlebosclerosis, 223; drug eruption, 185; and others, 565. Among events related to both liver injury and lung injury, approximately 70% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Scutellariae Radix.

The pseudoaldosteronism-related events, which are induced by Glycyrrhizae Radix, included several events related to muscle injury, heart failure, and arrhythmia. Events related to mesenteric phlebosclerosis, believed to be induced by long-term use of Kampo formulas containing Gardeniae Fructus, increased remarkably during the study period. Among the events related to drug eruption, approximately 35% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Ephedrae Herba.

The authors concluded that Kampo medicines may cause various adverse events. The present results provide valuable information regarding adverse events associated with Kampo medicines from the viewpoint of patient safety.

While this paper presents invaluable data, its authors offer little by way of critical discussion. There is hardly any good evidence to show that any of the Kampo formulas are effective. Thus a discussion needs to be had about the question whether they generate more good than harm. The authors are completely silent on this important issue, and I suspect the reason might be that Kampo is a bit of a ‘holy cow’ in Japan that must not be questioned.

The numbers of adverse events are impressively high, but we do not know how they compare to adverse events in other areas of healthcare. For instance, it would be valuable to have comparative data indicating how many adverse events occurred with Kampo compared to synthetic drugs per 1 000 patients using them.

Thus we are left with the conclusion that, once proper post-marketing methods are employed to monitor SCAM, we are likely to realise that adverse events do occur more frequently than SCAM enthusiasts might have predicted. In my view, it is high time that we have effective adverse event monitoring in all areas of SCAM.

‘Acute-on-chronic liver failure’ (ACLF) is an acute deterioration of liver function in patients with pre-existing liver disease. It is usually associated with a precipitating event and results in the failure of one or more organs and high short term mortality.

An international team of researchers published a analysis examining data regarding drugs producing ACLF. They evaluated clinical features, laboratory characteristics, outcome, and predictors of mortality in patients with drug-induced ACLF. They identified drugs as precipitants of ACLF among prospective cohort of patients with ACLF from the Asian Pacific Association of Study of Liver (APASL) ACLF Research Consortium (AARC) database. Drugs were considered precipitants after exclusion of known causes together with a temporal association between exposure and decompensation. Outcome was defined as death from decompensation.

Of the 3,132 patients with ACLF, drugs were implicated as a cause in 10.5% of all cases and other non-drug causes in 89.5%. Within the first group, so-called alternative medications (SCAMs) were the commonest cause (71.7%), followed by combination anti-tuberculosis therapy drugs (27.3%). Alcoholic liver disease (28.6%), cryptogenic liver disease (25.5%), and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) (16.7%) were common causes of underlying liver diseases. Patients with drug-induced ACLF had jaundice (100%), ascites (88%), encephalopathy (46.5%), high Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) (30.2), and Child-Turcotte-Pugh score (12.1). The overall 90-day mortality was higher in drug-induced (46.5%) than in non-drug-induced ACLF (38.8%).

The authors concluded that drugs are important identifiable causes of ACLF in Asia-Pacific countries, predominantly from complementary and alternative medications, followed by anti-tuberculosis drugs. Encephalopathy, bilirubin, blood urea, lactate, and international normalized ratio (INR) predict mortality in drug-induced ACLF.

The fact that some SCAMs can damage the liver has long been known. Here, for example, is 2003 our review of herbal medicine and liver problems:

Systematic literature searches were performed on Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, Amed and Ciscom. To identify additional data, searches were conducted by hand in relevant medical journals and in our own files. The screening and selection of articles and the extraction of data were performed independently by the two authors. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. In order to be included articles were required to report data on hepatotoxic events associated with the therapeutic use of herbal medicinal products.

Single medicinal herbs and combination preparations are associated with hepatotoxic events. Clinically, the spectrum ranges from transient elevations of liver enzyme levels to fulminant liver failure and death. In most instances hepatotoxic herbal constituents are believed to be the cause, while others may be due to herb-drug interactions, contamination and/or adulteration.

A number of herbal medicinal products are associated with serious hepatotoxic events. Incidence figures are largely unknown, and in most cases a causal attribution is not established. The challenge for the future is to systematically research this area, educate all parties involved, and minimize patient risk.

Despite these warnings, progress is almost non-existent. If anything the problem seems to increase in proportion with the rise in the use of SCAM. Hence, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of a more recent overview: The actual incidence and prevalence of herb-induced liver injury in developing nations remain largely unknown due to both poor pharmacovigilance programs and non-application of emerging technologies. Improving education and public awareness of the potential risks of herbals and herbal products is desirable to ensure that suspected adverse effects are formally reported. There is need for stricter regulations and pre-clinical studies necessary for efficacy and safety.

“Eating elderberries can help minimise influenza symptoms.” This statement comes from a press release by the University of Sydney. As it turned out, the announcement was not just erroneous but it also had concealed that the in-vitro study that formed the basis for the press-release was part-funded by the very company, Pharmacare, which sells elderberry-based flu remedies.

“This is an appalling misrepresentation of this Pharmacare-funded in-vitro study,” said associate professor Ken Harvey, president of Friends of Science in Medicine. “It was inappropriate and misleading to imply from this study that an extract was ‘proven to fight flu’.” A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed Pharmacare was shown a copy of the press release before it was published.

This is an embarrassing turn of events, no doubt. But what about elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the flu? Is there any evidence?

A systematic review quantified the effects of elderberry supplementation. Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms. The quantitative synthesis of the effects yielded a large mean effect size. The authors concluded that these findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.


The alternative to antibiotic misuse can only be the correct use of antibiotics. And, in the case of viral infections such as the flu, this can only be the non-use of antibiotics. My trust in this review, published in a SCAM journal of dubious repute, has instantly dropped to zero.

Perhaps a recent overview recently published in THE MEDICAL LETTER provides a more trustworthy picture:

No large randomized, controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness of elderberry for prevention or treatment of influenza have been conducted to date. Elderberry appears to have some activity against influenza virus strains in vitro. In two small studies (conducted outside the US), adults with influenza A or B virus infection taking elderberry extract reported a shorter duration of symptoms compared to those taking placebo. Consuming uncooked blue or black elderberries can cause nausea and vomiting. The rest of the plant (bark, stems, leaves, and root) contains sambunigrin, which can release cyanide. No data are available on the safety of elderberry use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. CONCLUSION — Prompt treatment with an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu, and generics) has been shown to be effective in large randomized, controlled trials in reducing the duration of influenza symptoms, and it may reduce the risk of influenza-related complications. There is no acceptable evidence to date that elderberry is effective for prevention or treatment of influenza and its safety is unclear.

Any take-home messages?


  1. Elderberry supplements are not of proven effectiveness against the flu.
  2. The press officers at universities should be more cautious when writing press-releases.
  3. They should involve the scientists and avoid the sponsors of the research.
  4. In-vitro studies can never tell us anything about clinical effectiveness.
  5. SCAM-journals’ articles must be taken with a pinch of salt.
  6. Consumers are being misled left, right and centre.

Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae (Danshen) is a herbal remedy that is part of many TCM herbal mixtures. Allegedly, Danshen has been used in clinical practice for over 2000 years.

But is it effective?

The aim of this systematic review was to evaluate the current available evidence of Danshen for the treatment of cancer. English and Chinese electronic databases were searched from PubMed, the Cochrane Library, EMBASE, and the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), VIP database, Wanfang database until September 2018. The methodological quality of the included studies was evaluated by using the method of Cochrane system.

Thirteen RCTs with 1045 participants were identified. The studies investigated the lung cancer (n = 5), leukemia (n = 3), liver cancer (n = 3), breast or colon cancer (n = 1), and gastric cancer (n = 1). A total of 83 traditional Chinese medicines were used in all prescriptions and there were three different dosage forms. The meta-analysis suggested that Danshen formulae had a significant effect on RR (response rate) (OR 2.38, 95% CI 1.66-3.42), 1-year survival (OR 1.70 95% CI 1.22-2.36), 3-year survival (OR 2.78, 95% CI 1.62-4.78), and 5-year survival (OR 8.45, 95% CI 2.53-28.27).

The authors concluded that the current research results showed that Danshen formulae combined with chemotherapy for cancer treatment was better than conventional drug treatment plan alone.

I am getting a little tired of discussing systematic reviews of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that are little more than promotion, free of good science. But, because such articles do seriously endanger the life of many patients, I do nevertheless succumb occasionally. So here are a few points to explain why the conclusions of the Chinese authors are nonsense:

  • Even though the authors claim the trials included in their review were of high quality, most were, in fact, flimsy.
  • The trials used no less than 83 different herbal mixtures of dubious quality containing Danshen. It is therefore not possible to define which mixture worked and which did not.
  • There is no detailed discussion of the adverse effects and no mention of possible herb-drug interactions.
  • There seemed to be a sizable publication bias hidden in the data.
  • All the eligible studies were conducted in China, and we know that such trials are unreliable to say the least.
  • Only four articles were published in English which means those of us who cannot read Chinese are unable to check the correctness of the data extraction of the review authors.

I know it sounds terribly chauvinistic, but I do truly believe that we should simply ignore Chinese articles, if they have defects that set our alarm bells ringing – if not, we are likely to do a significant disservice to healthcare and progress.

Prince Charles is visiting Germany. According to the British press, he will say (or, by now, probably has said):

“… Our countries and our people have been through so much together… As we look towards the future, I can only hope that we can also pledge to redouble our commitment to each other and to the ties between us… For some of us, of course, these connections are particularly personal…

And right he is!

Charles is Britain’s staunchest supporter of and meddler in SCAM, while the Germans seem to be the most prolific innovators of SCAM.

Just think of

  • von Bingen, Hildegard – inventor of a form of herbal medicine;
  • Hahnemann, Samuel – inventor of homeopathy;
  • Hamer, Ryke Geerd – inventor of New German Medicine;
  • Huneke, Ferdinand – inventor of neural therapy;
  • Kneipp, Sebastian – co-inventor of naturopathy;
  • Mesmer, Anton – inventor of hypnotherapy;
  • Morlell, Franz – inventor of bioresonance;
  • Reckeweg, Hans -inventor of homotoxicology;
  • Schimmel, Helmut – co-inventor of the Vega test;
  • Schulz, Heinrich – inventor of autogenic training;
  • Steiner, Rudlof – inventor of anthroposophical medicine;
  • Voll, Reinhold – inventor of a form of electroacupuncture;
  • Wegman, Ita – co-inventor of anthroposophical medicine.

Why did I compile this list?

Actually, I am not quite sure. But now that it is in front of me, a few thoughts go through my mind:

  1. Germany seems to be the promised land for quacks; in addition to the list above, think of the Heilpraktiker or the German alternative cancer clinics.
  2. On this blog, we have discussed most of these SCAMs, yet the list gave me several ideas for future posts;
  3. With only three exceptions, these SCAMs are fairly recent. They were invented when conventional medicine was already making big strides towards progress. There was no need for them. Why then were they invented?
  4. Almost all of these treatments were the brainchild of a single person. Could this be a hallmark for quackery?
  5. With only two exceptions, the inventors were male. Is the innovation of SCAM a male prerogative?
  6. With just one or two exceptions, these SCAMs are ineffective, useless and superfluous. Not attributes, of course, that would link them to Charles!


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