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What risks do herbal products pose to the Australian community?

Med J Aust 2017; 206 (2): 86-90. || doi: 10.5694/mja16.00614

Summary

Traditional herbal products are widely used in Australia to treat a broad range of conditions and diseases. It is popularly believed that these products are safer than prescribed drugs. While many may be safe, it is worrying that the specific effects and harmful interactions of a number of their components with prescription medications is not well understood. Some traditional herbal preparations contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, as well as naturally occurring organic toxins. The effects of these substances can be dire, including acute hepatic and renal failure, exacerbation of pre-existing conditions and diseases, and even death. The content and quality of herbal preparations are not tightly controlled, with some ingredients either not listed or their concentrations recorded inaccurately on websites or labels. Herbal products may also include illegal ingredients, such as ephedra, Asarum europaeum (European wild ginger) and endangered animal species (eg, snow leopard). An additional problem is augmentation with prescription medications to enhance the apparent effectiveness of a preparation. Toxic substances may also be deliberately or inadvertently added: less expensive, more harmful plants may be substituted for more expensive ingredients, and processing may not be adequate. The lack of regulation and monitoring of traditional herbal preparations in Australia and other Western countries means that their contribution to illness and death is unknown. We need to raise awareness of these problems with health care practitioners and with the general public.

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  • Roger W Byard1
  • Ian Musgrave1
  • Garth Maker2
  • Michael Bunce3

  • 1 University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA
  • 2 Murdoch University, Perth, WA
  • 3 Trace and Environmental DNA Laboratory (TrEnD), Curtin University, Perth, WA

Correspondence: roger.byard@sa.gov.au

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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access_time 04:52, 6 February 2017
Klaus Martin Beckmann

I congratulate the authors on their comprehensive and extremely helpful article. Thank you for highlighting the risks to children and adolescents in the context of heavy metal loading associated with the use of over the counter (OTC) herbal medications. However when reading the article I miss the mention of the childhood higher prevalence mental health disorders such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. I am writing to add about the same risks from herbal remedies in particular to children of the youngest age from OTC in greater numbers, and equally there are no epidemiological data available. Some parents desperate for cure may revert to non medical doctor prescribed allopathic medication and revert to the use complimentary or alternative medicines. To give a good example on the faith in the purity of OTC medications: Sheryl Walters for example reports on the potential use of herbal potions for ADHD: "Other herbal remedies that have shown promise without side effects are ginkgo biloba, brahmi, Siberian ginseng, gotu kola, and green oats. All of these herbs enhance alertness without the use of caffeine." Reference online as accessed on 6/2/2017:
http://www.naturalnews.com/026081.html

The practice point is to continue asking about OTC when taking the history.

Competing Interests: No relevant disclosures

Assoc Prof Klaus Martin Beckmann
Griffith University