Chinese herb safety?
Nasty, smelly, yellow powders, bits of wood and grasses that you wouldn't even smoke?
You Joke? Well ... No.
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.
Concerning Chinese Herb Safety in medicine, an article in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1987 gave the following statistics:
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, one might hazard a guess that nobody would ever visit a Western, orthodox, hospital again. See this report.
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, and lobby for more control so that they can first patent and then profit from drugs equivalent in action to the herbs in question.
There are two main Chinese herb safety concerns.
Safety concerns here? Our advice is as follows. If you experience adverse symptoms after taking Chinese herbs as prescribed, you should stop taking the herbs and consult your herbalist.
The symptoms we mean are:
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 the herbs are prescribed by someone appropriately qualified.
Chinese herbs have been in use for thousands of years, and are inherently safe when prescribed as recommended.
However, just as some individuals have reactions to Western medications, eg penicillin, so 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.
Sensitivity should not be confused with the fact that Chinese herbs do make changes in the body, and it is not uncommon to have digestive changes when adjusting to herbs.
These should be noted and if in any doubt, ring your practitioner.
The following is a bit more technical.
There is a test called the ALT test (Alanine AminoTransferase - previously known as the SGPT - Serum Glutmic Pyruvic Transaminase).
This measures ALT which is usually present in high concentration in the liver. It is also present in heart and skeletal muscle, but in much lower concentrations, so the ALT test is fairly specific to the liver, and is raised only if liver disease is present. Normal levels are below 45: if the level exceeds this, it may be due to alcohol, drugs (such as paracetemol), thyroid disease, new diabetes or heart failure. It needs investigation if it exceeds 150.
However, many people have a naturally raised level, or because it is raised by harmless dietary factors or other, perhaps Western, herbs or supplements which they are taking. These people may react beneficially to Chinese herbs.
A very few people have a sudden dramatic increase in ALT from taking Chinese herbs, leading to jaundice. Here, clearly there are Chinese herb safety concerns and one would stop the herbs, allowing the ALT level to fall naturally.
Then perhaps retest with smaller quantities of the herbs, or with a different variety of herb.
If the ALT level rises, it has often been found to rise to a peak after twelve weeks, then reduce. However, the more common pattern is that the ALT level rises after the first week or two before settling back when the body becomes adjusted to it.
In general, the problem is very rare. The main Chinese herb safety considerations are whether there is continuing
... all of which are basically signs of a liver trying to detoxify.
When we give patients herbs, we explain what to look out for and when to get back to us.
The problem comes mostly when people persist in taking herbs even when they are feeling very ill from them, or perhaps when they continue to take the herbs long after they are needed, or when their health pattern has changed or improved.
Other Chinese herb safety concerns to consider, especially if importing herbs directly rather than through an approved importer, include the following.
There is, however, another Chinese herb safety concern, caused by Government intervention.
Some herbs are banned because either their use threatens the continued existence of animals or species, or cruelty is involved in production.
For example, the rhinoceros, pictured, a race of animal present long before we humans arrived.
©Kurt Vrey, Dreamstime
Rhinoceros horn is, unfortunately, credited with certain benefits. Alternative herbs are better, have no Chinese herb safety concerns and certainly advantage the rhinoceros, an endangered species.
There are other herbs that actually have produced no ill-effects except under very exceptional circumstances that would not normally occur.
An example of this is Akebia Trifoliata, which has never been implicated in poisoning people but which shares its Chinese name 'mu tong' with other herbs, some of which, when over-used, have caused problems. Banning the use of this herb deprives practitioners of a very useful, safe and vital herb.
Many people are taking Chinese herbs that they have read or heard about, such as Astragalus (Huang Qi), or Ginseng (Ren Shen) or Chinese Angelica root (Dang Gui/Tang Kwei) with only a few problems. These can be bought in many UK shops.
By the way, long-term use of any herb, Western or Chinese, is not recommended unadvisedly because they have an effect on us which is usually only very gradual.
The experience of herbalists and homeopaths is that any substance will, especially if taken regularly, ultimately affect us.
Since its effects will only gradually infiltrate into our lives, we may not realise where they come from, or indeed that anything is amiss.
In a small number of cases, herbs were prescribed by people who did not have the requisite experience or knowledge, with results that have given Chinese herbalism a bad name.
Government intervention has banned useful herbs on the grounds of public safety. It is to be hoped that these herbs will be returned to use before long, with suitable controls over their distribution.
So of course there are Chinese herb safety concerns! But their use over more than 2500 years and the long training of practitioners makes them as safe as Western medicine, and much less harmful.
All the books in the 'Chinese Medicine in English' series should be fully accessible on Kindles and Kindle apps. (Or you can buy the softback print editions, of course.)
('Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine' published 1986, was never available in a Kindle version.)
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Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine!
One Review so far. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)
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