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Herbal horrors: Reading isn’t believing

Dear Humorous Herbalist,

I’ve repeatedly seen stories on television over the past month citing “dangerous supplements” and herbs to avoid. The one herb, Aristolochic acid, keeps being mentioned as hazardous and deadly. I’ve never heard of a plant called Aristolochic acid. Could you please offer any information you have on this? Thank you.

” Jerry (via e-mail)



Dear Jerry,

I don’t know who organized the media onslaught over the past month, but I can tell you this: It was well planned and designed to play on the public’s fear. Is it a coincidence that the reports are coming on the heels of the successful ban on ephedra? I doubt it. The kickoff to this anti-herbal medicine media campaign (let’s just call it what it is, okay?) started with the May cover story in Consumer Reports with the headline: “Dangerous Supplements.”



Morning news programs featured the writer of this story as he blasted 12 herbs and “supplements” that he called “The Dirty Dozen.” (Clever, huh?) I watched one of the programs and shook my head in disgust because the public is being manipulated by these stories that are filled with half-truths and outright lies.

I don’t have enough space in my column to address each of the supplements or herbs that were mentioned in Consumer Reports. I can, however, briefly give you my take on the top headliner of the report, Aristolochic acid.

First of all, Aristolochic acid (AA) is not an herb. AA is an extraction from vines of a species of plant called Aristolochia. The Consumer Reports article calls this supplement a “powerful kidney toxin” and notes that it may be carcinogenic when taken in high doses. The dangers of AA are highlighted with reference to a well-known incident in the early 1990s. More than 100 patrons in a Belgian weight-loss clinic suffered kidney failure “after consuming Chinese herbs adulterated with Aristolochia.”

What you are not told is that the concoction of Chinese herbs also contained drugs such as the stimulants fenfluramine and diethylpropion. Was Aristolochia responsible for the problem or was the combination at fault? No one knows. If you research aristolochia, as I did, it is classified as “toxic.” Understand that the problems arose from adulteration with AA. This has usually occurred when Aristolochia was mistakenly compounded into a preparation for a particular medicinal use instead of another herb.

Herbal species most vulnerable to substitution by Aristolochia include some species of the following herbs: Akebia, Asarum, Bragantia, Clematis, Cocculus, Diploclisia, Menispernum, Saussurea, Sinomenium, Stephania and Vladimiria.

The bottom line is if you don’t know about herbs and want to start incorporating natural medicine into your lifestyle, either start doing some intense self-study on the subject or consult with a qualified, highly skilled herbalist. You wouldn’t start popping a bevy of prescription medications willy-nilly without consulting a medical doctor, would you?

While most herbs are gentle and supportive, there are some disturbed supplement makers out there who create insane formulas that can produce short-term or long-term health conditions. Research your herbal sources and the companies that produce the formulas.

I have always said that education is vital for anyone who is seeking help from a medical doctor or an alternative therapist. There are great doctors and there are bad doctors. There are great herbalists and there are bad herbalists.

The more you know about your body and the multiple health solutions that exist, the more innate power you have over your problem. When you hold the cards and take a genuine interest in your well-being, you are halfway to your goal of renewed health.

While supplies last, Laurel Dewey is offering a special deal on autographed copies of her 400+ page second book “Plant Power.” Purchase “Plant Power” for $18 (that’s $2 off the retail price) and receive free shipping. Purchase two books for $30 and save a total of $10 off the retail price and receive free shipping. Make checks/money orders payable to: The Humorous Herbalist and address it to: “Plant Power Book Deal,” 714 Grand Ave., Glenwood Springs, CO 81601. Include names of the individuals receiving the books and Laurel will personalize the greeting.

E-mail your questions to The Humorous Herbalist at writer8@sopris.net.

The information in this column is not meant to take the place of your physician, nor is it intended to treat, diagnose or prescribe. Pregnant or nursing women should consult their doctor before using herbal therapy.


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