Privileging Drugs, Bashing Herbs
Posted on Monday, April 5th, 2010
Not long ago, we ran across a couple of hmmm-inducing headlines on news stories involving herbal medications. The first covered research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology on problems that can arise from mixing “heart drugs” and some herbal supplements. According to WebMD’s report,
[Researcher Arshad ] Jahangir says the danger is especially great in elderly heart patients, who are often also taking drugs for other chronic conditions and who may already have an increased risk for bleeding.
Bleeding was one of the most frequently cited interaction risks identified by the Mayo researchers, along with reducing or increasing the potency of the prescribed medications.
Some specific examples they cited included:
- St. John’s wort, which is typically used to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, has been shown in some studies to decrease the effectiveness of the arrhythmia drug digoxin, as well as blood-pressure-lowering medications and cholesterol-regulating statins.
- The herbal remedies alfalfa, dong quai, bilberry, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, and ginkgo biloba were all identified by the researchers as increasing bleeding risk when combined with the widely prescribed anti-clotting drug Coumadin (warfarin). Ginseng and green tea were identified as decreasing Coumadin’s effects.
- The banned herbal product ephedra (ma-huang) has been linked to stroke, heart attack, seizures, and death from cardiac arrhythmia in otherwise healthy adults who used the product to boost energy or lose weight.
The headline on this story?
Herbal Remedies May Be Risky with Heart Drugs
Why not “Heart Drugs May Be Risky with Herbal Remedies”?
Well, for one, in a culture where drugs are the norm, natural medicine is seen as something extra – at best, not harmful and maybe having some placebo effect; at worst, something that gives people false hope and keeps them from seeking “real” treatment. Of course, this view is only tenable when you ignore the evidence – clinical and scientific – supporting various so-called “alternative” treatments and accept the illusion that all corporate, Western school medicine has been thoroughly, rigorously and scientifically tested. (Even some defenders of Western medicine acknowledge the illusion.)
Until corporate medicine accepts proven holistic treatments as medicine, it will always insist that when bad interactions occur, the problem is with the herbs, not the drugs.
This attitude comes across even more forcefully in the headline of the “second news item:
Herbal Medicines Can Be Lethal, Pathologist Warns
This article reported on a paper published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, in which Professor Roger Byard discusses cases of herbal medicine toxicity, such as when the medicine is contaminated with heavy metals or taken at too high a dose or taken with drugs or other medicines that cause a bad reaction. But despite what the headline says, in exactly none of these cases are herbal medicines in and of themselves the problem. Contamination is a problem of manufacture, which is why it’s important to choose high quality supplements when you do take them. Dosage is an issue with any substance: too much of anything – even water – is toxic and potentially lethal. The risk of bad interactions can be largely avoided by consulting with a qualified health professional before taking any medicine or nutritional supplement, and keeping your health care providers informed of your regimen, including any changes to it.
The scary headline effectively buries those points, even as it reinforces the bias against natural medicine, as does the other headline. Consequently, skeptics may feel their views justified while those who could benefit from the important information contained in such articles – those who take herbs or use other holistic health practices – may ignore it, writing the whole piece off as yet another hatchet job against time-tested remedies.
That strikes us as a lose-lose situation.