Herbal medicines could be harming Australians, new research

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 6th February 2017

The belief that herbal medicines are safe because they are “natural” could be putting people’s health at risk says a group of Australian researchers.

In an academic review, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers from the University of Adelaide, Murdoch University and Curtin University say some traditional herbal medicines contain toxic chemicals from both animals and plants.

“Toxic side effects of herbal medicines used in traditional societies have typically not been reported, and this is often cited in favour of their safety,” said lead author Professor Roger Byard from the University of Adelaide.

“However, the lack of systematic observation has meant that even serious adverse reactions, such as the kidney failure and liver damage caused by some plant species, have gone unrecognised until recently,” Professor Byard said.

Danger in not informing GP of complementary medicine use

The researchers said more than half of those who use complementary medicines do not inform their GP that they take them.

“Most of the time patients don’t recognise herbal products as a medicine, so it doesn’t come to mind when asked what medicines they are taking,” said study co-author Dr Ian Musgrave from the University’s Discipline of Pharmacology.

“It can also be a situation of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – medical doctors may not think to ask patients what herbal medicines they might be taking, so people don’t think to mention it. The problem with this is that drug interactions are poorly recognised in herbs – not only can herbal medicines interact with traditional pharmaceutical medicines but also with other herbal medicines the patient may be using,” he stated.

“Light regulation of the industry”

The researchers said that due to the relatively light regulation of the industry, the content and quality of herbal preparations are not as tightly controlled as standard pharmaceuticals.

“A significant number of traditional herbal medicines do not comply with Australian regulations,” said Dr Musgrave.

“In some cases ingredients are either not listed or their concentrations are recorded inaccurately on websites or labels. In other cases a botanical species may be replaced with another if it is difficult to source or too expensive. The replacement species may be potentially toxic. Most worryingly, a few products are illegally adulterated with standard pharmaceuticals to increase the effectiveness of the herbal product,” Dr Musgrave said.

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