Can herbal remedies help you turn over a new leaf?

Posted on April 15, 2011


The Northerner is ill. Thankfully it’s not man flu, which can be more exhausting than a 10k run, but he does have a terrible throat infection and a runny nose to boot. Despite the river of mucous and the coughing fits, he soldiering on.

My 87-year-old Trinidadian grandmother who’s very fond of the Manc – must be the enormous wedge of Polenta Cake he baked for her the first time they met – gave me a “West Indian home remedy” to set him on a speedy road to recovery. No, it didn’t involve endangered animal body parts or illegal/threatened plant species, God forbid! Has it worked? The “Voodoo-Ray” treatment as he likes to refer to it, hasn’t cured him, but it did give him a goodnight’s sleep. Or perhaps that was just exhaustion.

Herbal remedies are something the EU is trying to regulate more stringently. The traditional herbal medicine market is estimated to be worth around five million pounds. More and more people are looking for alternate ways to treat colds and illnesses, rather than using prescriptive drugs. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is of particular concern to conservationists because of its claims to “heal or improve aliments” while using body parts from some of the world’s most endangered species like the tiger; rhinos and primates.

The flesh of the endangered Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) is used in traditional herbal remedies to treat impotency

But herbal remedies also rely on rare plant species and a growing demand is leading to the exploitation of many endangered plants globally.

From 1 May 2011, traditional herbal medicinal products must be licensed or prescribed by a registered herbal practitioner to comply with an EU directive passed in 2004. The directive was introduced in response to a rising concern over adverse effects caused by herbal medicines.

Professor Jayne Lawrence, chief science adviser of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, says: “People often equate natural with safe but a lot of these remedies are actually quite potent and can cause side effects. Some also interact with prescription medicines.”

Anyone that fail to meet the May deadline will risk fines if they continue to sell within EU countries.

According to the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), which represents herbal practitioners, not a single product used in traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine has been licensed. In Europe, around 200 products from 27 plant species have been licensed but there are 300 plant species in use in the UK alone.

The ANH estimates the cost of obtaining a licence at between £80,000 and £120,000 per herb. It says this is affordable for single herbal products with big markets, such as echinacea (a remedy for colds and flu) but will drive small producers of medicines containing multiple herbs out of business.

Richard Woodfield, of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), the health watchdog which will police the new regulations, says: “It is a public health measure which puts the consumer in the driving seat. We know that a quarter of the population takes herbal medicines but there were unregulated products made to low standards and making unverified claims of efficacy – often for serious medical conditions.”

Hydrastis canadensis, Goldenseal, is collected in the wild in large quantities

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) China and India are two of the world’s largest markets for medicinal plants. About 90 percent of the ginseng, or approximately 30 million plants, exported from the United States each year goes to countries in East Asia. It says Europe as a whole imports one-quarter of the world’s trade in herbal medicines, around 440,000 metric tons. Major producers of herbal medicine include the United States, Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan, Madagascar, and Sudan.

The wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, has studied the use of medicinal plants in Europe, the United States, Africa, and Ecuador, and says in each case, a number of plant species are threatened as a result of uncontrolled collection. Poaching within national parks still happens, so it’s not just animal species that we need to be concerned about.

The directive coming into force will require that traditional, over-the-counter herbal remedies are made to a standardised level of ‘safety and quality’ across Europe; but unlike licensed medicines, manufacturers of herbal medicines do not have to prove their products work. Some medics fear just because something is standardised, it gives the green light to people to say there are no risks involved when you take it.

Prof David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, said in an interview with the newspaper The Daily Telegraph, that it flew in the face of advice from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

It allowed herbalists to sell treatments that had not been rigorously tested, he said, while drugs firms faced a barrage of clinical trials for every product: “Why should there be different rules for different people?”

A spokesman for the Department of Health (DoH) said: “The Government is aware of the strength of feeling on this issue and is actively exploring options.”

Conservation bodies say the best way forward is to cultivate plant specimens. This is happening in Europe, but WWF says it’s still in an experimental phase in the United States, and has barely been attempted in Africa and Latin America.

Increasing the amount of cultivated herbs available will decrease the pressure on wild plant populations. But conservationists say historically this only happens when wild populations are already threatened by over-exploitation.

one of the ingredients from Nans remedy

So if you’re suffering from the dreaded lurgie like the Northerner, think about what you’re buying to get yourself back to health. Nan’s remedy only included hot water; honey; lime juice; fresh black pepper and lots of rum!! No animals were hurt during the making of this drink.