Not all herbal supplements are harmless. A whole lot of people use herbal remedies with the assumption that even if they don’t work, they’re not really doing any harm. But a new journal article offers a timely reminder that that’s not always the case.
In fact, one of the most commonly used herbal remedies, Aristolochia (AKA birthwort or Dutchman’s pipe), has been shown to trigger kidney failure and cancer in roughly 5-10 percent of the population, who have a genetic susceptibility to one of its compounds.
Aristolochia is a genus of plant that’s been used for more than 2,500 years as a cure-all alternative medicine, treating things as diverse as “snakebite, head wounds, insomnia, constipation, uterine problems, and generalised edema”, the new paper notes.
But it’s also known to contain the potentially lethal toxin, aristolochic acid, which scientists have established can cause kidney disease. To be clear, every thing we put in our body can have side effects – and medications come with many risks of their own. But the big question is, why aren’t the side effects of herbal remedies listed on the packet, or discussed more widely?
It’s also hard for scientists to measure the health of people taking herbal supplements, seeing as some doctors of traditional Chinese medicine prefer to measure a patient’s energy flow, known as qi, rather than use western diagnostic techniques. And one of the biggest issues is that there’s the general assumption, both from the public and regulatory agencies, that because herbal supplements have been used for centuries, they “must be safe”.
The bottom line is that it’s going to take years of serious, well-designed experiments to find out if a herbal remedy has any potential side effects, and for most medical bodies, that hasn’t been a priority.