Warning! Important safety information missing from several herbal products

A large number of people use herbal medicines, who in all honesty believe that they are harmless just because they are natural. However, several herbal products can have similar side effects to conventional drugs because of their potentially hazardous interactions with other drugs. In a new study published in the journal BMC Medicine, researchers reported that several over-the-counter herbal products do not contain key information mandated for the safe use of these products.

Nearly one third of users are ignorant about the risks associated with the use of herbal products, regardless of the fact that many herbal products cause severe adverse effects, because of the “healthy” hype created around their use. Around 68 different concoctions of five most common remedies, including St. Johns wort, Asian ginseng, Echinacea, garlic, and Ginkgo, were dispensed by University of Leeds investigators at three large chain pharmacies, two popular health food stores, and three supermarket pharmacies. Safety information provided by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and that on products provided by investigators regarding the precautions, interactions with other drugs, and side effects was compared and analyzed for accuracy and completeness.

Certain classes of people get seriously affected with each of the selected products. St Johns wort can decrease the efficacy of contraceptive pills, and can have an effect on warfarin, used for blood clotting prevention. While Asian ginseng is incompatible for diabetics, Ginkgo and Echinacea were found to trigger allergic reactions. Garlic can cause blood thinning in some people and interfere with anti-HIV drugs. Surprisingly, the findings of the investigators revealed that a remarkable 93% of the analyzed products were unlicensed; consequently, around 50% of them were being marketed as food supplements and were not required to adhere to any safety or quality standards. While three products enclosed a satisfactory amount of safety information, only 13% of products had an information leaflet.

Professor Theo Raynor explained, “Consumers need reliable and comprehensive information when buying herbal remedies information which tells them whether the remedy is suitable for them. From April 2011 an EU directive requires herbal medicinal products to be licensed, or to get Traditional Herbal Registration (THR), which means the information with the product has been approved. This applies to things like St Johns wort and Echinacea, but not necessarily to others such as Asian ginseng and ginkgo. It also does not apply to existing stock, which can still be sold off. People should look out for the THR logo when buying these products. Furthermore pharmacists and doctors need to be made aware what herbal remedies people are taking so that their patients receive the best possible care.”

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