I recently heard a talk by Thomas Efferth of the Institute for Pharmacology of the University of Mainz on herbal medicine. There is a common point of view that substances derived from plants are harmless and good while the chemical drugs of standard medicine are evil. The speaker emphasized that plants have good reasons for not being good to those who eat them. They do not have immune systems of the type we do and they cannot run away and so it is natural that they use poisons to defend themselves. Herbal medicines are effective in some cases but they need to be subject to controls as much as do substances obtained by artificial chemical means. In the talk a number of examples of the dangers of ‘natural’ medicines were presented and I will write about some of them here.
The first example is that of Aristolochia. This a large genus of plants, some of which are poisonous. One of these, Aristolochia clematitis, has been extensively used in herbal medicine. It was used extensively in the west in ancient times and is used in traditional Chinese medicine until today. In the talk the story was told of an incident which happened in Belgium. There was a product sold as a means of losing weight which contained a Chinese plant. It sold so well that the manufacturer’s supplies of the plant were running out. When more was ordered a fateful mistake took place. There are two plants which have the same name in China. The one is that which was originally contained in the weight-loss product. The other is the poisonous Aristolochia fangchi and it was the one which was delivered. This led to more than 100 cases of kidney failure in the people using the product. Another way in which plants can be dangerous is as weeds in crop fields. In the Balkans contamination of grain with Aristolochia clematitis led to a kidney disease called Balkan nephropathy, with 35000 recorded cases. The substance, aristolochic acid, which is responsible for the kidney toxicity is also known to be a strong carcinogen. Interestingly, this substance is not poisonous for everyone and its bad effects depend a lot on the variability in liver enzymes among individuals.
A class of substances used by many plants to protect themselves against insects are the pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These substances are hepatotoxic and carcinogenic. They may move through the food chain being found, for instance, in honey. It has been noted that there may be risks associated to the amount of these substances contained in medicinal herbs used both in the West and in China. It was mentioned in the talk that drinking too much of certain types of herbal tea may be damaging to health. The problem is usually not the plants that are the main components of the teas but other plants which may be harvested with them in small quantities. There is at least one exception to this, namely coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). In one case the death of an infant due to liver disease is believed to be due to the mother drinking this type of tea during pregnancy. After that the sale of coltsfoot was banned in Germany.
There were some remarks in the talk on heavy metals which I found quite suprising. One concerned ayurvedic medicine which has an aura of being gentle and harmless. In fact in many of these substances certain heavy metals are added delibrately (lead, mercury and arsenic). According to Wikipedia more than 80 cases of lead poisoning due to ayurvedic ‘medicines’ have been recorded. Another remark was that there can be significant concentrations of heavy metals in tobacco smoke. The negative health effects of smoking are sufficiently well known but this aspect was new to me.
Another theme in the talk was interactions between herbal medicines and normal drugs. Apparently it is often the case that patients who use herbal remedies are afraid to mention this to their doctors since they think this may spoil the relationship to their practitioner. Then it can happen that a doctor is suprised by the fact that a drug he prescribes is not working as expected. Little does he know that the patient is secretly taking a ‘natural’ drug in parallel. An example is St. John’s wort which is sometimes taken as a remedy for depression. It may work and it has no direct negative effects but it can be problematic because it reduces the effects of other drugs taken at the same time, e.g. the contraceptive pill. It changes the activity of liver enzymes and causes them to eliminate other drugs from the body faster than would normally happen, thus causing an effective reduction of the dose.
We are surrounded by poisonous plants. I was always sceptical of the positive effects of ‘natural’, plant-derived medicines. Now I have realised how seriously the dangers of these substances should be taken.