Why “herbal” does not always equal “healthy”

At first, people used to pray to gods to heal them from all sorts of diseases and traumas. Usually the result of that was dying young. Then, they started experimenting with different herbs and mineral substances and managed to cure some of these diseases on their own. It took hundreds of years to start making associations when it comes to which plant protects from which disease. Slowly but steadily ancient doctors/ tribe magicians/ healers  and so on passed their wisdom from one generation to the next and their books of natural healing methods expanded. In all continents people developed their own traditional healing practices. Some of them are still used today. Many people in fact prefer to use natural remedies instead of taking a chemically synthesized drug. And indeed, many natural remedies offer comfort without side effects. Drinking chamomile and getting an aspirin to get rid of a headache can be equally effective, for example. Except that chamomile will not thin your blood.

What happens though when the ancient wisdom proves to be not so wise after all? Last week, on the 7th of August, in the Science Translational Medicine, two studies were published, both of which prove that herbal remedies coming from the plants belonging to the genus Aristolochia are carcinogenic. These plants contain a naturally carcinogenic compound that causes mutations in the cells of people who consume the traditional Chinese remedies that contain the plant. You can read a detailed article here. It is long, but quite informative. Even though Aristolochic acid has been banned in most countries since 2003, according to the article, there are still many people who insist on using herbal remedies containing it. The scientists believe that this mainly happens because it takes decades from the exposure to the carcinogen till the cancer appears, which makes the connection difficult. Of course, traditional Chinese health practitioners find it hard to admit that they have been harming people for centuries, when using this remedy, and this does not help either.

Aristolochia Arborea. Image from http://www.plantsystematics.org

Aristolochia Arborea. Image from http://www.plantsystematics.org

Since we are at it, let’s have a look at a few other herbal remedies that are not always healthy:

St. John’s wort: Used mainly to treat mild depression, this herb interacts with other medicine causing unplanned pregnancies to women who were on the pill and organ rejections to people who had organ transplants and were on anti-rejection drugs.

Echinacea: It is used mainly as an immune system booster. However, if you are getting medication to lower your cholesterol that contains statins, niancin or fibrates along with echinacea, you increase your risk of liver damage.

Comfrey: Used externally, it helps heal wounds, sprains, inflammations and scratches. When ingested though it can be dangerous as it was found to cause cancer to rats in concentrations a little as 0.5% of their diet. It can also cause extended liver and lung damage. Some coffee shops sell comfrey tea. Just order something else.

Kava: Used to treat anxiety, this herbal remedy often takes up to eight weeks to work and it can destroy your liver in less time, especially if you already have issues with it. Some doctors suggest its use instead of prescription anti-anxiety drugs, but only for 3-4 weeks and only to patients with a healthy liver. Its use is also associated with nerve damage.

Garlic: Garlic is used to lower bad cholesterol and high blood pressure and it is also a blood thinner. This is why if you are using blood-thinning drugs, you should consult your doctor before getting garlic capsule or consuming it in medicinal amounts.

Gingko: A main ingredient of many supplements meant to improve memory, slow down dementia and improve slow blood circulations. If you are taking aspirin and warfarin though, you need to avoid gingko, as it can increase your risk of bleeding.

Green tea: This powerful antioxidant that helps you stay alert can counteract warfarin.

Alfalfa: Used to reduce the plaques formed by atherosclerosis and to lower bad cholesterol levels, alfalfa can increase the risk of bleeding if consumed with warfarin. The same is tru for ginger, billberry and fenugreek.

Ginseng: It is used to increase energy levels, lower bad cholesterol and lower blood pressure. If overused though, it can actually increase blood pressure and counteract warfarin.

Grapefruit: Grapefruit juice is mostly consumed by people who want to lose weight and it also improves heart health. However, grapefruit juice contains compounds that interfere with an enzyme which is needed for the proper absorption of certain medication (statins and calcium channel blockers included) and that intensifies the effect of such drugs.

Licorice root: It is used to treat certain viral infections, sore throat, bronchitis and stomach ulcers. It can however raise blood pressure and lead to a drop of blood potassium levels.
Of course there are many other herbal remedies that counteract with certain medications and this why it is very important to consult your doctor before taking any herbal remedy. The same goes if you are pregnant. Many herbs that are beneficial for the mother-to-be can harm the fetus and lead to miscarriage. Being educated is the best solution to use nature’s gifts in a safe and responsible way.

2 responses to “Why “herbal” does not always equal “healthy”

  1. Wow! I did not know that about Kava and have been drinking Kava anti-stress tea! This is the exactly the reason why I’ve just bought more books on herbs and their correct usage. Your blog seems very informational. Have you gone through any herbalist training?

    • I haven’t been through any herbalist training but I have been reading a lot about herbs on line and in books. The issue is that there is so much conflicting information out there. What I choose to do is drink only the herbs that I feel confident about and not in huge amounts. This way I can enjoy more variety as well 🙂 I am glad you found the article informative Taune!

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