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Herbal Medicine can be Dangerous

published  First Published: 08/02/2010
Article written by: Carol Linbloom
Herbal remedies can kill, says a South Australian forensic pathologist, who warns against the "false perception" they are "safer than manufactured medicines".
Professor Roger Byard, from the University of Adelaide, said the risk came not only from toxic substances found in some natural therapies but also from their problematic use alongside conventional drugs.
St Johns Wort was known to reduce the effectiveness of warfarin, the drug which prevents blood clots from forming in people who have had a heart attack, Professor Byard said.
The popular herb could also cause bleeding in women taking the oral contraceptive pill, he said.
"Herbal medicines are frequently mixed with standard drugs, presumably to make them more effective," Professor Byard said.
"This can also have devastating results."
Other seemingly innocuous therapies - Borage Oil and Evening Primrose Oil - were known to lower the seizure threshold for epileptics while Ginkgo and garlic increased the risk of internal bleeding.
Professor Byard said many people who took complementary medicines did not tell their doctor, despite the risks.
He also analysed 251 Asian herbal products found in stores across the US and he found arsenic in 36 of them, mercury in 35 and lead in 24 of the products.
Professor Byard's paper, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, includes cases of children who developed lead and arsenic poisoning after they were given complementary medicines by well-meaning parents.
"There's a false perception that herbal remedies are safer than manufactured medicines, when in fact many contain potentially lethal concentrations of arsenic, mercury and lead," Professor Byard said.
"These substances may cause serious illnesses, exacerbate pre-existing health problems or result in death, particularly if taken in excess or injected rather than ingested."
Professor Byard is calling on forensic pathologists to be more alert to the role that herbal therapies could play in unexpected deaths.
Australians spend $2.5 billion on complementary therapies a year, according to the latest industry estimate.
There is a wide-held belief that complementary, or herbal medicines are 100 per cent safe, and it is prudent to discuss all supplements taken with your GP before taking any pharmaceutical medication.
Every medicine has an effect on the body and so every medicine should be treated with respect regardless of whether it is a pharmaceutical or a herbal medicine.


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