Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine – dangerous

March 26, 2008 at 4:29 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Remedies) (, , , , , , , )

There has been a reported case of poisoning by herbal remedy. This has been discussed on the Bad Science forum and was also reported in an online news article that featured on Ben Goldacre’s Miniblog. I can’t see a report of this case on the herbal remedies page at whats the harm yet, but hopefully it will soon be up there – I’ve just submitted it. I’ve looked before at dubious herbal remedies and linked to some systematic reviews – like this one for individualised herbal medicine. The review is by R Guo, P H Canter and E Ernst and includes the following quote (my emphasis) –

Individualised herbal medicine, as practised in European medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, has a very sparse evidence base and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective in any indication. Because of the high potential for adverse events and negative herb–herb and herb–drug interactions, this lack of evidence for effectiveness means that its use cannot be recommended.

Not only is there insufficient evidence that individualised herbal medicine is effective, but there is also a chance that the medicine(s) you take will be dangerous. Is it worth the risk?

UPDATE: has covered this story as well.


  1. Claire said,

    I remembered this from a report last year, about the current debate within China about TCM –

    “…But sceptics worry that substandard herbs, unregulated ingredients and methods of diagnosis such as reading the pulse or the iris of the eye, are just plain dangerous to health.

    Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist, has won a reputation for rooting out academic fraud, and the risk of poisons in traditional remedies is one that he finds particularly worrying. Some treatments contain heavy metals, others traces of mercury or arsenic. Acupuncture, too, gives him concern. At what angle should the needles be inserted, and how deep? Fang and his fellow doubters worry that the lack of scientific research in the Western manner is letting traditional practitioners get away with murder…”

  2. jdc said,

    Thanks for the link Claire – I’d never heard of Fang Zhouzi or Zhang Gongyao before. I like that there’s a statement from the Ministry of Health that describes Zhang’s views as “ignorant of history”. (Whereas the TCHM practitioners are fully aware of history – it’s science they are ignorant of).

  3. Dr Aust said,

    Plus, of course, the known risk that unscrupulous sellers of TCM or similar herbal remedies include real pharmacologically active molecules in them to help ensure that it does something.

    Examples of things that have turned up in TCM type remedies recently are steroids and amphetamine-related slimming drugs.

  4. jdc325 said,

    Excellent links Dr Aust – thanks!

  5. pv said,

    I think it’s always worth reminding people of the link between modern medicine and herbal medicine – how many modern medicines have their origins in plant life etc.
    I’m sure some dimwits are attracted to the “Chineseness” (is that a word) of it rather than any pharmacological ingredient.
    “Chinese” = ancient = wise and good.
    “Western” = new = unnatural and bad.
    I know, it’s idiotic and completely back to front, but that’s how some people seem to think.

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