Most people around the world may think that herbal health remedies are completely safe to use. However, the Baylor College of Medicine and Stony Brook University researchers claim that these remedies are actually a health hazard.

Apparently, the remedies that contain the plant Aristolochia can cause acid nephropathy (AAN), with symptoms including renal failure, interstitial nephritis, and even urinary track cancer. The findings have been published on March 25 in the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) reports.

The findings are based on the 1997-2003 data taken from eight million people exposed to the plant in Taiwan. The researchers found that Aristolochia’s compound called aristolactam can upset the DNA in renal tissues. It causes the malfunction in the TP53 tumour suppressor gene, consequently causing kidney cancer, sometimes even liver and bladder cancer.


Bottles containing Jamu, traditional herbal medicine from Indonesia and Malaysia. Credit: Wikimedia/

Many may argue that these herbal remedies are safe since even the World Health Organisation endorses it and people have been consuming these for more than 2,000 years without any casualty reports. However, the researchers assert that the lack of mortality data stems from the lack of epidemiological data conducted on those who opt for these alternative remedies. Moreover, symptoms do not appear immediately. They usually appear months or years after the damage has already been done.

“The history of Aristolachia indicates that other herbs that have been used for a long time may also have toxic and/or carcinogenic compounds,” the researchers add. “It is prudent to assume that many herbs may contain toxic or carcinogenic substances that can cause subsequent health problems for humans.”

The researchers point out that their findings do not necessarily belittle the use of traditional healing practices. They only want to shed light on the possible health problems of handing out treatments that have not been scientifically proven to be safe. They hope that this will encourage health authorities to take actions to improve patient safety and treatment efficacy.