Use caution in rush to herbal cures

EATING WELL

April 19, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Special to The Sun

Herbal teas are once again touted as spring tonics as well as caffeine replacers, and herbal medicines compete with synthetic, high-tech prescription drugs as modern America reaches back to the future for that "natural" touch.

But think about hemlock, curare and belladonna. You'll recognize these "all natural" herbs as some of nature's deadliest poisons. They sound a warning note in the rush back to ancient herbal remedies to cure modern ills.

Herbs run the gamut from truly helpful, through ineffective, to mildly annoying and onward to deadly dangerous. Herbs that appear in the grocery store or grow on your windowsill are a bonanza for flavoring goods. Some, like basil or garlic, contain phytochemicals that may help prevent cancer or heart disease when they are part of a healthy diet.

But medicinal herbs are largely uncontrolled substances. They don't have to be identified by their scientific names, plant parts or country of origin. There are no standards for safety, efficacy or potency. There is little quality control. In one study of 54 ginseng products, for instance, 25 percent contained no ginseng at all.

Most herbal remedies have not been submitted to the rigorous testing we demand of synthetic pharmaceuticals. Drug companies invest in testing because products will be protected by patents, so the financial payback is worth the cost. Plant drugs, used through the ages, don't qualify for patents, so there's little incentive for a big investment.

When it comes to herbal teas, most, but not all, are safe in normal amounts. But even some safe teas can become toxic in large doses, or when taken even in small amounts over a long period of time. For instance, chamomile tea triggered allergic reactions in five of 15 ragweed sufferers tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Herbs like sassafras, tonka bean and calamus, once believed safe, have been banned by the FDA, since they have been found toxic or cancer-producing.

The FDA reports that one natural-foods enthusiast suffering from excessive menstrual bleeding had consumed 20 pots of her "change of season" tonics in a two-week period. The brew contained tonka bean, melilot and sweet woodruff, three sources of the blood-thinning coumarins, which slow blood clotting time.

Krista Fechner, a doctoral student from the University of California at Davis, gathered information on some herbs recently on the market. Here's a brief summary.

Ma Huang or Ephedra acts like adrenalin and can relieve nasal congestion and bronchial constriction. It also increases heart rate and blood pressure, insomnia and anxiety. It should not be taken by people with high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, prostate enlargement or who are pregnant, nursing or taking anti-depressants.

Chaparral, brewed from the creosote bush, was promoted for treatment of everything from arthritis to venereal disease. After five cases of liver damage, the FDA issued warnings to consumers, and manufacturers removed it from the market.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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