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Are There Any Herbs
That I Should Avoid?

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article originally appeared on page 25 in the May 1-2, 2004 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Doctor's Corner.
Reprinted on page 19 in the May 14-15, 2005 issue, under Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

I receive a great deal of inquiries on this topic. I view commercial herb products as drugs obtained from plants. There is a certain seduction in the notion of quick convenient self-treatment. The words "herb" and "safe" both contain four letters, but few other similarities. Natural does not imply free of harm. Ingesting a substance in the belief that it selectively corrects different conditions in different people is erroneous. It is akin to throwing salt in your stew and hoping that it only lands on the meat and avoids the carrots. It just does not work that way!

I provide you with a list of herbs that are considered to be dangerous and potentially fatal. Strangely, despite warnings, I still find these various substances available in shops, boutiques, on the Internet and in other places. I am particularly distressed when I discover a dismissive, almost clandestine, attitude toward reporting of non-prescription medicine use during coroner investigations. When seized, the prescription medicines will fit into a sandwich size bag, while the "other" often requires garbage size bags for seizure. Obtaining a history of how, when and if herbal medicines were used certainly clouds the case. I believe we require more regulation and stricter enforcement of responsibility towards unqualified individuals advocating and financially benefiting from their use.

Stay away from these:

1.       Aristolochic acid. Found in some traditional "Chinese herb mixtures" used to soothe various bowel ailments. Also called snakeroot and wild ginger. It is a human carcinogen that is toxic to the kidney.

2.       Chaparral (stinkweed). The active ingredient is a drug called Nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA) that is rumored to be an antioxidant capable of preventing cell damage. It has caused hepatitis and irreversible liver damage.

3.       Kava. Sales are officially prohibited in Canada. It is touted as a stress reliever, but in fact stresses the liver to the point of toxicity.

4.       Germander. This too has been associated with liver failure and death.

5.       Ephedra (ma huang). This potent stimulant drug can send blood pressure skyrocketing causing strokes and heart attacks. It is banned, but found in many weight loss products. Nearly 15,000 adverse reports were registered before the FDA in the United States issued a ban. Unbelievably, the ban was opposed at every step, illustrating that immense profits are at stake.

6.       Comfrey (blackwart, bruisewart). It contains an active chemical called allantoin that, for generations, was used externally as a paste to treat wounds and broken bones. Internal use became popular for stomach and menstrual problems. Internal use can narrow liver blood vessels causing irreversible damage.

7.       Androstenedione. Touted as a performance enhancer and anti-aging substance, it is a steroid that has been associated with increased cancer risk.

What astounds me is that these substances get on the market legally without peer-reviewed human trials because the term "drug" is diluted and substituted with safe sounding names like: "natural", "food supplement", "herbal", and "healthy." The consumer then becomes the guinea pig with no one monitoring the situation. In this type of scenario, it may take thousands of adverse reactions to make an association with a non-prescription substance. The problem is compounded in time-delayed reactions. In these cases, problems may surface months or years after any memory of ingestion is long gone. In the meantime, numerous people suffer "unknown" kidney and liver failures and await transplants, while sales continue. What I sometimes find strange is how difficult it is to convince some patients to use a single well studied substance for a serious medical problem, yet discover that the very same person will regularly consume pills containing 20-40 substances sold to them by a teenage store clerk!

I urge you to read labels and to become fully aware of what substances you are placing in your body. Substances derived from herbs are an integral part of my practice. I am the son of a botanically enlightened lady and grew up in a household where every sun-exposed area nurtured a living plant, and the basement was packed full of various drying plants, hibernating roots, fresh preserves, fruits and vegetables. Minor ailments were met with a freshly prepared meal, tea or ointment. It was unimaginable to even consider anything in a pill form as a herb. I still use fresh herbs, mostly in cooking, but I will leave that discussion for another time. The Internet is currently full of misrepresentations and should be avoided as the sole source of information.

Related resources:

Herb Directory Index from Holistic Online.

Medicinal and Magickal Herbal List compiled by Lord Riekin and Lady Bridget 2001.

List of medicinal plants and herbs from Live and Feel.

List of plants used as medicine from Wikipedia.

Herbs Alphabetical by Common Name from Annie's Remedy.

Herbal Remedies from Witchway.

Herbs at a Glance from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Download and Print Booklet: Herbs at a Glance from NCCAM, NIH.

Medicinal herbs and fungi from Wikipedia.

Medicinal Herb Plant Pictures and Descriptions List. Medicinal Plant Pictures by Karen Bergeron. Permission required to use any herb pictures from this site, Alternative Nature Online Herbal.

List of Plants and Their Uses. Edible and Medicinal Plants, posted by Katheryn from Canada. Plant Name, Appearance, Medicinal Qualities/Uses, History, Growing Instructions.

Medicinal Plant List from College of Pharmacy, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI.

List of Medicinal Plants for What Ails You. A quick reference to specific conditions and the herbs that treat them, from Natural Elixir.

List of Medicinal Plants according to Diseases and Medicinal properties from Bitterroot Restoration.

Medicinal Plants List includes a few pictures, from Medicinal Plants, Herbs.

Poisonous Plants from Medicinal Plants, Herbs.

Herbal Remedies World: Alphabetical list of all herbs by name and uses.

List of Important Medicinal Plants and Their Uses from Orissa Forest Development Corporation.

Trilingual List of Medicinal Plant Names - in English, French, Latin from Flora Medinica, School of Herbal Studies.

Alphabetical List of Herbs: Pick Your Herb Garden Plants - It's Easy! from Mighty Herbs Blogspot.ca.

Herb List from North Haven Gardens.

Plants For A Future - Database Search.

Information Resource: About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (search evidence-based information on herbs, botanicals, vitamins, and other supplements - read disclaimer first).

A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve - Plant & Herb Index with over 800 varieties of herbs & plants, published in 1931.

List of Philippine Herbal Medicinal Plants. Tagalog and English List of Philippine Medicinal Plants. List of Philippine Medicinal Plants with Chinese Names.

Index of Recipes.

Index of Poisonous Plants.

Cornell University Poisonous Plants Information Database.

Medicinal Herbs Guide. The Medicinal Herb FAQ from Henriette's Herbal Homepage.

Herb Reference Guide.

Dictionary of Chinese Herbs.

List of Most Useful Medicinal Plants of India - Ayurvedic from Indian Medicinal Plants.

Herbs That Are Toxic.

Side Effects of Some Herbs.

Herbs That Can Be Toxic to the Kidneys.

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