A new study from the University of Adelaide has found that people who take herbal medicines may be putting their health at risk. In their study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, the research team found that some traditional herbal medicines contain toxic chemicals derived from animals, plants, metals and pesticides.

It is widely believed that such type of medicines is safe since they are produced from natural materials and have been consumed for thousands of years. However, such medicines can actually cause health problems, which have not been reported before.

“Toxic side effects of herbal medicines used in traditional societies have typically not been reported, and this is often cited in favor of their safety. However, the lack of systematic observation has meant that even serious adverse reactions, such as the kidney failure and liver damage caused by some plant species, have gone unrecognized until recently,” explains study lead author Roger Byard, a professor of Pathology at the university.

The research team, which also included researchers from Murdoch University and Curtin University, suggests that such medicines must be regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Not following such regulations must face legal action, they say.

The researchers add that their findings indicate that those patients who take herbal medicines as well as other prescribed medicines must inform their physicians about this. This habit could cause effects that may harm the patient.

“A significant number of traditional herbal medicines do not comply with Australian regulations. In some cases ingredients are either not listed or their concentrations are recorded inaccurately on websites or labels. In other cases a botanical species may be replaced with another if it is difficult to source or too expensive. The replacement species may be potentially toxic. Most worryingly, a few products are illegally adulterated with standard pharmaceuticals to increase the effectiveness of the herbal product,” says  Ian Musgrave from the University’s Discipline of Pharmacology.

However, the researchers know that regulating herbal medicines can cost a lot. Still, patient safety should be the priority.

“Any sensible way to overcome these issues will involve more effort: more testing, more documentation, and this will naturally incur more costs for industry. There will be a reluctance from industry to do this, but while they claim that for thousands of years they have been using herbal products without such tests, the potential risks to human health mean that there is due cause for reasonable, scientifically rigorous testing,” Musgrave states.

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