Herbal supplements ‘may not be safe’

It is important to recognise that just because something is considered natural it does not mean it is safe.

Sir, Companies are misleading consumers and putting their health at risk by selling herbal products labelled as food supplements instead of complying with the requirements of the new Traditional Herbal Medicine Registration Scheme. The new scheme was introduced a year ago today to ensure the safety and quality of medicinal herbs available for self-selection by customers for self-limiting minor ailments.

The registration of a herbal product as a traditional herbal medicine guarantees it contains the stated amount of the specified herb and the absence of dangerous adulterants such as heavy metals. Registered herbal medicines must be sold with a patient information leaflet with safety information for customers.

Far less stringent safety and quality requirements apply to products sold as herbal food supplements. Some herbal products labelled as food supplements are being sold at higher concentrations than the same herbal medicine registered under the new scheme. For example, the MHRA recently reported Black Cohosh was being sold as a food supplement at 50 times the dose of the registered herbal medicine, putting consumers at risk of liver damage.

Drug-induced liver damage is being continually researched, as it can be seen that even prescription medication, when taken for longer periods of time, can lead to various liver conditions. Through the study of live liver cell cultures, such as the stellate cell that gets activated when an immune response is required, indicating that disease is present, such type of damage through medication can be further studied. For those interested, webpages like https://lnhlifesciences.org/stellate-cells may be of help. For now, it is enough to understand that excessive amounts of any drug (natural or synthetic) can cause unintended effects.

It is important to recognise that just because something is considered natural it does not mean it is safe. There is a need for clear and unambiguous definitions of what constitutes a herbal medicine and a food supplement to enable consumers to make safe and informed choices about their health.

Professor Jayne Lawrence, Royal Pharmaceutical Society
Professor Edzard Ernst, Peninsula Medical School
Lord Taverne, Sense About Science

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