Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

Networking For A Better Future - News and perspectives you may not find in the media

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October 08, 2007

Should We Discard Herbal Medicine - Unless Provided by Pharma?

An examination of three randomized trials involving individualized herbal remedies was sufficient for two researchers to suggest that herbal medicine should be discarded. Not those herbal extracts that are provided by pharmaceutical companies, to be sure, but those mixtures of individual herbs prepared by practitioners following Chinese, Indian or other herbal traditions. The study was reported in the UK press and is drawing many comments from readers, largely in favor of herbal and medical diversity.


The Daily Mail got its headline slightly wrong when saying Herb cures that 'do you more harm than good', after all, what was examined was not the safety of herbal remedies but their efficacy. The sideswipe on the safety of herbs seems no more than a gratuitous slur. The researchers' complaint is with "Individualised treatments, used in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herbal medicine" and with the fact that of the three trials they examined only one showed the herbal remedies to be superior to placebo. The Daily Mail gives away some of the agenda when reporting:

"Britain is reviewing the laws on the regulation of tailored herbal treatments, but Dr Canter wants them banned, even at the risk of a backlash from Chinese or Indian communities."

adding that

"In some countries doctors practise phytotherapy, which uses extracts from a single plant and closely follows the principles of pharmacology."

So phytotherapy, using "extracts from a single plant" that "closely follow the principles of pharmacology" are all right, while individual attention from a herbalist is outright dangerous. Presumably the researchers who came up with this "study" are practicing phytotherapy...

The Telegraph ( Herbal medicine 'risks harmful side-effects' ) and The Guardian ( Herbalists' cocktails may do more harm than good, say researchers ) carry similar stories calling for a ban on individualised herbal remedies. In The Guardian's article, we read:

"The UK drug regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), has been looking at herbal medicine, and statutory regulation for herbalists is imminent. Other areas where changes may be made are in manufacturing and import licences."

Call me biased, but could it be that the "study" involving a total of three research papers and a well-known antagonist of alternative medicine, Prof Edzard Ernst, has been thrown together in a great hurry for the express purpose of influencing the imminent new law (statutory regulation...) for the herbalist profession?

There are many interesting comments from readers on the newspapers' sites. One reader's letter and comment on the study that was sent to the papers carrying the story did not make it through to actual publication. It does however provide a glimpse of the interests that could be hiding behind this story ... perhaps it is all a question of money.

- - -

Thanks to Louise of Zeus Info Service for sharing this:

The following is the text of an emailed letter submitted today (6 October 2007) to the Daily Mail newspaper, London. Other emailed letters were sent to journalists in other papers who published similar stories.

Feel free to circulate it.

Dear Sirs,

Re: Herb cures that 'do you more harm than good' | Jenny Hope - Daily Mail - 4th October 2007

I write out of concern for what I read today in this story.

As a lawyer with a background as a trained scientist I have been directly involved with the drug industry in relation to herbal medicines. In my professional work I have met and dealt with medical and scientific professionals on different occasions who are involved in pharmaceutical research and the commercialisation of herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies and who recognise and in some cases are in awe at the efficacy of herbal medicines and the skills of herbalists.

The pharmaceutical industry have been trawling the world to snap up the secrets to numerous herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies in an attempt to turn them into conventional pill and bottled patented remedies. A notable example among many doing this is Phytopharm plc. And only yesterday in the Daily Mail is an example of one outcome "Anti-cancer pill made of wine, rice and berries".

At the same time as the pharmaceutical industry are doing that some elements attack traditional herbalists, nutritionalists and others. No one is going to pay large amounts of money for an expensive patented medicine when they can treat themselves, without the risk of serious side effects, with safe and effective plant based medicines proven over years, sometimes centuries, of use.

Even assuming the medical paper reported in your story is reliable (and that cannot be assumed about any medical paper) the suggestion that three randomised and very limited clinical trials (RCTs) about just three specific treatments tell us anything about the efficacy of "individualised herbal remedies" or herbal medicines in general is just not scientific. Yet these "experts" appear from the quotes in the media today, to be using that as an all-out attack on herbal medicines. This is precisely at the time the MHRA and the EU are considering regulation of herbal and other natural remedies.

Elsewhere today authors Dr Peter Canter and Professor Edzard Ernst from the Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter are quoted as calling for the sale of herbal medicines to be banned unless evidence of their efficacy can be shown.

This is just laughable when put into context. If conventional medical doctors had to stop using all the treatments they do unless proven by randomised clinical trial, medicine as we know it would shut down. So Ernst is pulling one over everyone by claiming that all herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies have to be proven by RCTs.

Professor Edzard Ernst of the very same Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter whose "scientists" were responsible for the paper also wrote an accompanying editorial to the paper. He claims his new field (dubbed "phytotherapy") is being confused with traditional herbal medicine and OTC remedies, which he claims "to date have no basis in science". He states "phytotherapy, which represents the scientific face of herbalism, has considerable potential to benefit patients".

As you can appreciate, that is a contradictory position for Ernst. The only reason he can create this new field of "phytotherapy" is because herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies are known to work even though they are not written up and reported in the medical literature.

It is farcical of the "researchers" to suggest that because no one has paid for formal research into herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies that there is no evidence of efficacy. There are large numbers of known and proven nutritional and other natural remedies which have not been formally researched and written up for publication in medical or scientific journals. No pharmaceutical company is going to fund research to prove a remedy anyone can knock up in their kitchen at minimal cost is safe and effective.

Drug companies control the evidence base in medical research. Two thirds of so-called "research" is funded by the drug industry. And the medical profession, with considerable drug company influence, has adopted a demonstrably nonsensical evidence base. This favours expensive published research which mainly only drug companies can afford to carry out. No one is carrying out needed research to demonstrate the efficacy of simple nutritional and other natural remedies on the scale needed. I am confident the NHS could save billions by investing in research into herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies to prove them safe and effective in the literature.

I have learnt enough to know there are many safe effective herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies which we are all being denied because of the power of the pharmaceutical industry in the promotion of medicines of sometimes dubious efficacy. And if you want proof of that, consider this. On 8th December 2003 Dr Allen Roses of GlaxoSmithKline was quoted by Science Editor Steve Connor of The Independent newspaper as saying at a scientific meeting in London where Dr Roses cited figures on how well different classes of drugs work in real patients:

"The vast majority of drugs - more than 90 per cent - only work in 30 or 50 per cent of the people," Dr Roses said. "I wouldn't say that most drugs don't work. I would say that most drugs work in 30 to 50 per cent of people. Drugs out there on the market work, but they don't work in everybody."

Connor’s story went on to say:-
“It is an open secret within the drugs industry that most of its products are ineffective in most patients but this is the first time that such a senior drugs boss has gone public. His comments come days after it emerged that the NHS drugs bill has soared by nearly 50 per cent in three years, rising by £2.3bn a year to an annual cost to the taxpayer of £7.2bn.”
Glaxo chief: Our drugs do not work on most patients By Steve Connor, Science Editor 08 December 2003

And then we need to look at the medical profession itself - with this example from the BMJ:
Why do doctors use treatments that do not work? Jenny Doust, Chris Del Mar, BMJ. 2004 February 28; 328(7438): 474–475.

It is well-known in research circles not to rely on author's opinions and particularly not what appears in the discussion or conclusions sections. Regrettably, publicity seeking authors who might be chasing down their next research grant sometimes manage to get news coverage for their work by issuing news releases containing inflammatory quotes which they anticipate will get the attention of the media.

Whilst these "researchers" have failed to demonstrate that herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies are generally ineffective what they have done is demonstrated how lacking in science the opinions of authors or medical papers can be.


Clifford G. Miller,
50 Burnhill Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3LA
Tel: + 44 (0) 20 8663 0044


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Monday October 8 2007
updated on Wednesday August 15 2012

URL of this article:


Related Articles

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Readers' Comments

Whoa!! I just read the article slamming tailored herbal treatments two days ago and today the health supreme newsletter lands up in my mail box. As an Ayurvedic doctor I am fuming of course. So are my friends and colleaues. We thought we were immune by now but we are not. I'm glad I got to read Jenny hope's letter. The sheer hypocrisy of the big pharmas is amazing. As an Ayurvedic doctor who also works in a rural background promoting Ayurveda (specially in mother and child care) I can imagine why these big companies are sweating profusely. We are producing near miracles at laughably small amounts of money in our little hospital. (I know this sounds unscientific but I am quite worked up right now, understandably). We have doctors of conventional medicine by the thousands who prescribe herbs as an "afterthought" and then act like they did traditional science a big favour. This big brother attitude is'nt showing signs of letting up. Its time traditional herbalists stood up for themselves in a big way. Couple of years ago it was the article from JAMA and now this. This is not going to stop. Thanks Sepp for drawing attention to this!

Posted by: sangita borave on October 9, 2007 06:47 AM


Dear Sepp
I've just come across your website and what a delight, a breath of
fresh air.
Herbalists and herbal medicines have been under attack for some
time now. Biased and poor research is being used as a tool to
discredit herbal medicines, whilst statutory regulation of
herbalists and increased regulation of herbal medicines is being
powered, by it would seem, the multi national pharmaceutical
companies, in the name of safety. Yet, Traditional Western
Herbalists have a superb safety record, pharmaceutical drugs and the
statutory regulated health professionals would appear to give much
more cause for concern regarding safety. There also seems to be very
little evidence, if any to show that Statutory regulation equates
with safety and a growing amount of evidence that would seem to
prove the opposite.
The majority of herbalists are very concerned about the possible
consequences of the above regulations, some feeling that it is
inevitable and that they are powerless, some believing statutory
regulation will safeguard our profession and enhance their
professional status. A significant number of herbalists are opposed
to these proposed regulations, believing that they will be
detrimental to the public's access and choice, the environment, our
indigenous Western Traditional Herbal Medicine.
A number of Independent Herbalists have come together to try and
preserve our Western Herbal Tradition, the diversity, access and
choice whilst doing what we can to help encourage the protection of
our environment, especially in the light of the looming
environmental pressures our society is going to face in the very
near future.
Please find our Declaration of Intent below.

We the undersigned subscribe to the following declaration of
intent, to be offered openly to our patients, our peers, the UK
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Department
of Health and all other interested parties, here and abroad:-

It is the inalienable right of all people to use plants for their
sustenance and healing. In the spirit of the European Charter of
Human Rights, so too is it an essential freedom to seek advice from
those who have devoted themselves to the knowledge and application
of the health-giving properties of plants.

Herbal Medicine is the indigenous natural healing tradition of the
British Peoples. It is a living tradition that has adapted and
remained relevant through all times. We count ourselves amongst the
custodians of this living tradition, for the benefit of all who
would choose it and for generations to come.

We conjoin with indigenous traditional healers throughout the
world in seeking to protect our plant heritage and maintain the
practice of all such natural therapies.

It is a maxim that all who care for the sick shall do no harm: our
inheritance is that British practitioners of Traditional Western
Herbal Medicine have upheld this absolutely and without exception
for a century or more, as we determine to continue.

Given that we are safe in the sourcing, preparation and
prescription of herbal medicines, we challenge the need for
legislation over and above the existing laws of the land that we are
subject to and willingly uphold.

Herbal Medicine is a humble vocation with a majority of part time
practitioners. We reject the current call for state regulation of
its practitioners in that it may exclude the many from legal
practice and equally place our work beyond the financial resources
of many of our patients.

Likewise we reject the current intention to regulate our medicines
in that it will compromise without justification the essential
freedoms of the public, herbal practitioners and their traditional
suppliers in favour of
the few who may profit by it.

Herbal Medicine's enduring strength is that it remains an
effective therapy employing the most basic of technologies with
little call on external resources or agencies. In anticipation of
the effects of climate change we are determined to keep this aspect
of our knowledge alive for ourselves and future generations as an
integral element of a healing planet.

Chris Caton, Nathalie Chidley, Carol Church, Stephen Church, Tim
Lane, Kym Murden, Neil Pellegrini, Sally Viney, Emmett Walsh,
Jennifer Wharam and Ania Zwozdiak

Posted by: Chris Caton on November 1, 2007 07:11 AM


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The Individual Is Supreme And Finds Its Way Through Intuition


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

These articles are brought to you strictly for educational and informational purposes. Be sure to consult your health practitioner of choice before utilizing any of the information to cure or mitigate disease. Any copyrighted material cited is used strictly in a non commercial way and in accordance with the "fair use" doctrine.



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