Advising caution about herbs

People's Pharmacy

October 18, 1998|By Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Herbs are big business ... again. One hundred years ago most medicines were herbal concoctions, frequently in an alcohol base. Formulas were secret, and the benefits claimed were preposterous.

It wasn't just the traveling medicine shows selling snake oil. Some of the predecessors of today's pharmaceutical giants sold products like Red Raven Water, "a sure-fire cure for hangover."

Smith, Kline & Co. also marketed Eskay's Neuro Phosphates, a strychnine- and alcohol-based formula intended for the "convalescent, the overworked, the constitutionally delicate, the neurasthenic, the chronically fatigued, the anorectic, and the aged." With no government oversight, anyone could put almost any ingredient into a container and sell it as medicine. Morphine, cocaine, opium, strychnine, turpentine and mercury were common ingredients.

Today most Americans would be horrified at the idea of taking any medicine without knowing that it had been proven safe and effective. The Food and Drug Administration was created to protect the American public from fraud as well as toxic exposures.

But when it comes to dietary supplements, we've gone back to the turn of the century. Congress passed a law in 1994 that effectively eliminated FDA involvement in such products.

Now herbs that are regulated as medicines in other countries are marketed as supplements in the United States. Consumers have no way of knowing whether the herbs they buy are pure or of consistent quality, and whether they are as potent as the label indicates.

A recent analysis of traditional Chinese medicines sold in California revealed frequent contamination with heavy metals (lead, arsenic and mercury) as well as undeclared pharmaceuticals. And an analysis of ginseng products a few years ago found extreme variability in the content of ginsenosides, active ingredients in this plant.

This year, Americans will spend $4 billion on herbal preparations such as ginkgo, echinacea, goldenseal, saw palmetto, ginseng and St. John's wort. There is no guarantee that they are getting what they are paying for or that the products are pure.

Even when bottles contain the proper plants at the proper dose, labels cannot tell the consumer what the herb is for and rarely mention side effects or interactions that might be anticipated. The legislation that took supplements out of the FDA's jurisdiction prevents adequate labeling. Some people learn by experience.

St. John's wort, for example, can make the skin more sensitive to sun damage. A report in the Lancet (Oct. 3, 1998) described a 35-year-old woman who developed a painful nerve condition after taking St. John's wort and going out in the sun. It took two months for the nerves to regenerate and the symptoms to disappear after she stopped the herbal preparation.

We think that herbs play a valuable role in allowing people to take care of themselves. But we think more information is needed.

Write to the Graedons in care of The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278, or e-mail to

King Features Syndicate

Pub Date: 10/18/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.