HERBAL MEDICINE: Not so much like conventional drugs, after all

Of all the alternative and complementary therapies, herbal medicine has usually been viewed as being the closest to conventional medicine – and so just as dangerous.

Not so, says Edzard Ernst, director of complementary medicine at Exeter University, England. Just 8,985 cases of adverse reactions from herbs were reported to the World Health Organization in 29 years until 1997, and this from 55 countries. This compares with the 190,000 adverse reactions from a pharmaceutical drug that are reported every year to UK authorities alone. The mild antidepressant St John’s wort, for example, has at least half the rate of adverse effects compared with conventional antidepressants, while kava is far safer than benzodiazepines, even though it has been banned in many countries, including the UK.

The argument that adverse reactions from herbal medicines are lower because fewer people take them may not hold water, either. It’s been estimated that around 30 per cent of the adult population of the UK has taken a herbal remedy.

Ernst also dispels another myth that herbal remedies are ineffective. Hundreds of medical trials have proven their effectiveness – and many of these trials have been properly conducted scientific studies.

Sadly, the EU’s legislation to harmonize usage of traditional herbal remedies will kill off any further research, Ernst fears.

(British Medical Journal, 2003; 327: 881-2).

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