Always…. Never…. What’s a consumer to do?

by Jeanine Adinaro on March 2, 2010

in Chinese Herbs

This British article was brought to my attention this morning. Once again, sensationalism sells- if you read the article, you’ll notice that it has painfully little to do with the headline. In fact, upon reading the headline, I was all set to start bashing the article as once again being irresponsible journalism. But upon reading the whole thing, I find that I agree with some of what is said, though not all of it.
Not terribly unlike the way we do things in Texas, in the UK, there is the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK) that sets the standards for practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. In the US, the NCCAOM fills this role. And from what I can tell, in the UK to be an acupuncturist, you have to meet the ATCM requirements. Here in the US, the role of deciding who can practice acupuncture is left to individual states, but many of them, including Texas, rely heavily on the NCCAOM in that the states require individuals wishing to obtain an acupuncture license to pass the NCCAOM standardized tests.
And then it seems there is a loophole, both in Texas and the UK. There is no specific license to be just a Chinese herbalist who does not practice acupuncture. This can potentially lead to people who don’t know what they are doing making people sick.
In the UK, some people claim the solution is more regulation. I have heard this argument in the US as well. But as my graduate epidemiology professor once said with regard to the suggestion that the US federal government should take a greater role, “Really? You want the folks who brought us FEMA to be in charge of that?”
I have another suggestion- let’s treat people like the responsible adults that they are, educate them, and let them make their own decisions.
Here’s my first contribution to that educational effort, and I call it the unique distinction that comes with the words ALWAYS and NEVER. If someone tells you that Chinese herbs are ALWAYS safe, because they come from plants, he does not know what he is talking about. And if someone tells you that you should NEVER use Chinese herbs, because they are unregulated and contain drugs, he does not know what he is talking about.
Are Chinese herbs sometimes unsafe- yes. That’s why I went to school for 4 years and get continuing education every year in order to use them safely and effectively. And more importantly, I know when I am out of my depth and refer people to other, more experienced practitioners. Even in the case of the much talked about herbs containing aristolochic acid, traditional and modern texts all caution the use of these herbs to be short term and not for use in people with damaged or susceptible yin (that’s traditional speak for kidney problems).
Do Chinese herbal preparations sometimes contain other things they shouldn’t, i.e. contaminants, put there intentionally by the manufacturer or through negligence- yes. And that is why as a consumer you should buy products from reputable sources, made by people who can answer your questions clearly. Consumers should learn how to discern which herbs are safe, common and helpful, and which should be avoided.
To make an analogy, consumers can walk into any vitamin isle at their local pharmacy and buy Vitamin A. Vitamin A is an essential part of a healthy diet, and is known to associate with the proper functioning of vision, the immune system, preventing cancer and the healthy turnover of epithelial cells. But when consumed by an adult in an excess of 25,000 IU daily, vitamin A can cause tiredness, discomfort, lethargy, upset stomach, decreased appetite, vomiting, joint soreness, irritability, headache, drying and cracking of the lips and skin, hair loss, and yellowing of the skin. In pregnant women, an excess of vitamin A can cause birth defects in the fetus.

This British article was brought to my attention this morning. Once again, sensationalism sells- if you read the article, you’ll notice that it has painfully little to do with the headline. In fact, upon reading the headline, I was all set to start bashing the article as once again being irresponsible journalism. But upon reading the whole thing, I find that I agree with some of what is said, though not all of it.

Not terribly unlike the way we do things in Texas, in the UK, there is the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK) that sets the standards for practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. In the US, the NCCAOM fills this role. And from what I can tell, in the UK to be an acupuncturist, you have to meet the ATCM requirements. Here in the US, the role of deciding who can practice acupuncture is left to individual states, but many of them, including Texas, rely heavily on the NCCAOM in that the states require individuals wishing to obtain an acupuncture license to pass the NCCAOM standardized tests.

And then it seems there is a loophole, both in Texas and the UK. There is no specific license to be just a Chinese herbalist who does not practice acupuncture. This can potentially lead to people who don’t know what they are doing making people sick.

In the UK, some people claim the solution is more regulation. I have heard this argument in the US as well. But as my graduate epidemiology professor once said with regard to the suggestion that the US federal government should take a greater role, “Really? You want the folks who brought us FEMA to be in charge of that?”

I have another suggestion- let’s treat people like the responsible adults that they are, educate them, and let them make their own decisions.

Here’s my first contribution to that educational effort, and I call it the unique distinction that comes with the words ALWAYS and NEVER. If someone tells you that Chinese herbs are ALWAYS safe, because they come from plants, he does not know what he is talking about. And if someone tells you that you should NEVER use Chinese herbs, because they are unregulated and contain drugs, he does not know what he is talking about.

Are Chinese herbs sometimes unsafe- yes. That’s why I went to school for 4 years and get continuing education every year in order to use them safely and effectively. And more importantly, I know when I am out of my depth and refer people to other, more experienced practitioners. Even in the case of the much talked about herbs containing aristolochic acid, traditional and modern texts all caution the use of these herbs to be short term and not for use in people with damaged or susceptible yin (that’s traditional speak for kidney problems). All that said, there are a number of Chinese herbs that are extremely safe and effective and pretty well impossible to misuse. Why don’t you hear stories of suffering from an astragalus overdose? Because if you take too much of it, you start throwing up long before it ever reaches your blood stream.

Do Chinese herbal preparations sometimes contain other things they shouldn’t, i.e. contaminants, put there intentionally by the manufacturer or through negligence- yes. And that is why as a consumer you should buy products from reputable sources, made by people who can answer your questions clearly. Consumers should learn how to discern which herbs are safe, common and helpful, and which should be avoided.

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