Chinese Herb Safety

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Chinese herb safety?

Nasty, smelly, yellow powders, bits of wood, twigs, leaves and grasses that you wouldn’t even smoke?


You Joke? Well … No.


Chinese herbs often used for asthma
Chinese herbs

In November 2000 a House of Lords (UK Parliament) committee on Complementary and Alternative Medicine produced a report. This, in effect, approved wholeheartedly of five therapies:


For a variety of reasons, probably based on the fact that they had an incomplete understanding of it, Chinese Herbal medicine was given a lower rating regarding Chinese herb safety concerns.

Some of the original authors of the report, having seen more of it, are now inclined to elevate Chinese Herbal Medicine to the same status as Acupuncture.



Chinese Herb Safety

Concerning Chinese Herb Safety in medicine, an article in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1987 gave the following statistics:

  • 480,000 practitioners of Chinese Herbal Medicine in People’s Republic of China
  • 1,500 Regional Hospitals for TCM, each covering around 500 acres.
  • 8,000 County level hospitals for TCM
  • 47,000 Township health centres using TCM mainly
  • 1.29M Doctors in rural areas able to prescribe herbs
  • Over 5,000 herbs recognised
  • 660,000 acres under herbal cultivation


Since then, China’s export of herbs has increased steadily to practitioners all over the world.

Some practitioners prescribe many tons of herbs annually, with nothing but benefit for their patients.

As in so many other areas of life, a very small number of Chinese herb safety cases have given it a bad name. 

If the same criteria were applied to Western Medicine, possibly nobody would ever visit a Western, orthodox, hospital again. See the report at

The difference is that we are unused to Chinese Medicine and suspicious of it, hence our Chinese herb safety worries!

In addition, manufacturers of orthodox medication fear that their market is shrinking because of these competing medicines. So they lobby for more control so that they can first patent and then profit from drugs equivalent in action to the herbs in question.


Dangers of Herbs

There are two main Chinese herb safety concerns.

  • The first is that people without knowing much about herbal medicines will prescribe or take them, to their detriment. For example, wu wei zi – Schisandra fruit – is widely used in the West to maintain health and ward off disease. Although Chinese medicine considers it a tonic for the Kidney, Schisandra’s main action is to stabilise and bind. This means that if one has caught an illness, say a cold, from which your body is trying to clear itself by sweating, Schisandra may actually prevent this, prolonging the cold and potentially making it into a deeper, more chronic disease. (If you want to understand more about this process, read our page on Suppression. Also, see our page on Primary and Secondary Actions.)
  • The second concern is that the herbs are mis-labelled, contaminated with heavy metals, steroids and other pharmaceuticals, or are just plain poisonous. For example, many people have heard that Chinese herbs can damage the liver. (Just to provide a small balance we will mention here two drugs that are widely available ‘over the counter’: one will kill you if overdosed: the other is merely lethal. Paracetemol has undoubted hepatotoxic effects, but controls over its sale were imposed only comparatively recently. Tobacco probably wouldn’t get a licence if introduced nowadays. We are sure you will be able to think of other, apparently well-tested, drugs that have had to be withdrawn from the market.)


Antihistamine for allergic rhinitis

Adverse Symptoms for Herbs

Safety concerns here? Our advice is as follows.

If you experience adverse symptoms after taking Chinese herbs as prescribed, stop taking the herbs and consult your herbalist. 

The symptoms we mean are:

  • severe tiredness, 
  • loss of appetite, 
  • diarrhoea, 
  • headaches, 
  • nausea, 
  • upper abdominal pain, 
  • feeling generally unwell, 
  • jaundice.


If you get the above symptoms do not restart taking the herbs until instructed to do so.

Basically, if the herbs come from responsible importers who know their sources and check their products properly, then there should be no Chinese herb safety concerns with toxicity when someone appropriately qualified prescribes them.

Chinese doctors have used herbs for thousands of years. They are inherently safe for nearly everyone! That’s assuming the prescriber gave them based on a proper case history and diagnosis.

However, just as some individuals have reactions to Western medications, eg penicillin, so do some people react idiosyncratically to individual Chinese herbs.

It is therefore sensible to start with less than the recommended full dosage and work up gradually so that any adjustments can be made.

Don’t confuse sensitivity with the fact that Chinese herbs do make changes in the body. It is not uncommon to have digestive changes when first adjusting to herbs.

These should be noted and if in any doubt, ring your practitioner.

Jonathan Brand colours

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