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Chinese Herbalism: Is it Dangerous?

By: Sarah Clark (ILEX) - Updated: 31 Aug 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Chinese Herbal Medicine Remedies

Chinese herbalism is a traditional therapy, rooted in traditions that stretch back to the third century. It's based on a definitive list of almost two thousand substances and ten thousand individual prescriptions. The system now uses more than 6,000 herbs, along with selected minerals and animal-based substances. The remedies are prescribed for the individual as well as any symptoms they report.

Herbal medicine is designed to try to correct imbalances within the body, rather than concentrating on alleviating separate symptoms in their own right. Most herbalists will also offer advice on lifestyle, and disease prevention, rather than simply cure.

Dangerous Remedies

Although Chinese herbal remedies are all based around natural substances, natural doesn't always mean safe. One reported danger of Chinese herbalism is the use of the herbs which form the compound aristolochic acid in the human body, which is known to cause severe kidney failure and even urinary tract cancer.

Several Chinese herbal medicines are known to contain aristolochic acid, so if you are prescribed any remedies by a herbalist, check the ingredient list for;

  • Aristolochia
  • Bragantia
  • Asarum

Before you take anything.

It's been illegal to import any herbal remedies containing these substances for over five years in the UK - but like most things, they are still available on the Internet.

Potential Kidney Failure

If you develop kidney failure after taking a remedy containing aristolochic acid, it can can lead to end-stage kidney failure, and this can happen quickly. Back in the 1990s, around 100 people suffering from kidney failure were found to have taken a slimming product which turned out to be aristolochic acid. It caused severe scarring of the kidneys, and 70 of the people identified as having taken the remedy ended up needing dialysis or a transplant

How to Spot The Dangers

You need to make sure that you treat medicinal herbs with as much respect as you would treat pharmaceutical drugs - they can all potentially have serious side effects, and are not without risk.

It can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad when it comes to Chinese Herbalism. Because there are dangers associated with the prescribing of some remedies, always make sure that anyone you consult is listed on The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine. (RCHM) Members will often be members of the British Acupuncture Council and often they've graduated from an RCHM accredited school. If they are on the register, they will be bound by a code of practice and be adequately insured, too.

If you're unsure about a particular ingredient of any remedy you're prescribed, you can find out if the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has issued advice on them on the website:

Never buy Chinese herbal remedies over the Internet, avoid anyone who isn't registered, and get your GPs advice first if you're pregnant, have had hepatitis, or liver disease.

Chinese herbalism has been used for many centuries, and evidence is showing that it is effective in treating eczema, malaria, bronchial infections, irritable bowel syndrome and even breast cancer, so in the right hands it's a safe, effective treatment.

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