imagesWhile herbal medicines and alternative remedies find favor among users and also among practitioners of such therapies, there is growing concern about the efficacy of herbal medicines. However, many people who suffer from chronic or even acute conditions and those disenchanted with conventional remedies and treatments turn to herbal remedies. According to statistics released by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Health, that studied data from the 2007 National Health Survey, as many as 38 percent of adults and 12 percent of children have used complementary and alternative medicines.

The difference between the two is that complementary medicines are used along with conventional remedies and treatments and alternative remedies are used instead of conventional therapies. Some people use them as a holistic remedy and others use them to improve their health and well-being, while still others use them in terminal or acute conditions when conventional medicines and therapies hold out little or no hope.

Are herbal medicines safe – adulteration, contaminations and mislabeling?

According to statistics given in The New York Times, Americans spend close to $5 billion annually for herbal remedies for various ailments. However, a study titled DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products published in BMC Medicine on October 11, 2013 showed that many herbal remedies did not have the ingredients that they purportedly contained.

The researchers consisting of Steven G. Newmaster and others from the University of Guelph in Ontario studied samples of herbal remedies procured through mail order from North America and used in Canada. They used a test called DNA barcoding to find out the ingredients in the herbal medicines.

The test results showed that either the products were heavily diluted by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice or they contained only these ingredients and none of the supposed herbal medicines. As many as 44 herbal supplements were studied and one-third of them contained only cheap fillers and no active ingreidnets. Some of them contained another plant or herb, but not the one listed. Only 48 percent of the samples tested were authentic.

While some of the ingredients may be benign, others may cause severe problems in people who unknowing consumer them and who suffer from gluten or nut allergy or allergy or reactions to any of the ingredients these remedies contain. Sometimes herbal remedies can react with conventional remedies, causing even more problems. Then there is the question of misbranding, fraud and lack of quality control.

Herbal therapies are not put through rigorous testing by any regulatory body

Conventional medicines have to undergo a lot of clinical trials before getting regulatory approval. Large double blind studies have to be conducted before the FDA will permit drugs to be sold. However, herbal medicines escape this screening because they come under food and dietary supplements rather than medicines. It may be difficult to test the medicines, too, as they may comprise different chemical compounds in very low doses that may be hard to identify. Another major problem is that many a time these drugs may be individualized for the patient. What will work for one patient may not work for the other.

La Trobe University in Australia has signed a memorandum of understanding in early February 2014 with global wellness company Swisse to establish a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre that will conduct research into the efficacy of various complementary medicines. The company will be spending $15 million to establish the centre and support the staff that will conduct the trials and research. As this is industry funded research, there is no guarantee that it will be totally unbiased, though the university says that it will walk away from the deal if they are any conditions that are imposed.

If you are a fan of herbal remedies, you should know that you may be putting yourself at risk – some herbal remedies have been found to be toxic with heavy metals in them. In the very least, the manufacturer you are buying from may be scamming you by not giving you a genuine product. And if you have a real ailment and you don’t tell your doctor what herbal remedies you are taking, you may be putting yourself at greater risk. As far as herbal remedies go you are not protected by the FDA or any other regulatory body so the principle of caveat emptor applies.

On the other hand, herbal remedies do have a long history and cultural background and if you take actual herbs rather than pills, powders and potions derived from them, you are probably not doing yourself much harm.