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Toxic Brews?

Doctors warn that some herbal remedies can do more harm than good

THURSDAY, Nov. 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The popularity of alternative medicine seems to have reached an all-time high in the United States. But medical experts say that surge has brought an array of problems:

  • A Chicago woman needed a liver transplant after taking a variety of herbal supplements she thought were cleansing her blood and boosting her energy.
  • A Brooklyn man drank herbal tea laced with lead and arsenic, and then almost died when he relied on other dubious alternative treatments to treat his poisoned system.

Studies show that up to half of all Americans use some type of alternative treatment, from seeing a chiropractor, to using acupuncture to taking herbal supplements.

While many treatments may be safe and even beneficial, doctors warn that very little is known about the potency of many herbs, and that can be dangerous and even deadly.

"People think things that are natural can't harm their bodies," says Dr. T.C. Chauhan, a gastroenterology fellow at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in New York. "But excessive amounts can be dangerous, and nobody knows what are excessive amounts of these substances."

Chauhan says he once treated a woman who came into the emergency room with liver failure. A diabetic, she had been drinking an herbal tea she thought would help control her blood glucose levels.

But when doctors asked if she was taking any medications or supplements, the woman repeatedly said "no."

"She never thought what she was taking could be harmful, so she never told us," Chauhan says.

Eventually, the woman admitted she had been drinking Chinese rice tea, although he says doctors still didn't know exactly what was in it.

The liver bears the brunt of toxins because everything that's ingested passes through that organ on its way to the bloodstream, Chauhan says. But, he adds, liver problems often aren't detected until it's too late because symptoms like jaundice don't show up until the damage is severe.

"Your liver can be down to 20 percent functioning, and you wouldn't even know it," Chauhan says.

The woman's situation was one of several case studies discussed at a recent Las Vegas meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology.

In another case, a 45-year-old woman came into a hospital with severe jaundice, itchy eyes and skin and dark yellow urine, all signs of liver failure.

Her condition continued to deteriorate over three weeks, leaving doctors perplexed, says the physician who treated her, Dr. Kanwarjit Arora, a gastroenterologist at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

The woman insisted she wasn't taking anything not prescribed for her, he says.

Finally, when the woman was near death, her family brought in a garbage bag full of herbs and pills they had found at her home, Arora says. She apparently had been taking more than 40 types of supplements, including barberry root, which supposedly cleanses the colon and boosts energy; jin bu huan, a Chinese herb that some take for insomnia, and ma huang, an appetite suppressant also known as ephedra.

These herbs have no proven benefits and previously have been linked to liver damage, Arora says.

The woman underwent a liver transplant and will have to take immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of her life, and she will always face the risk of dying if her body rejects the liver, he says.

The message here is simple: People always need to tell their physicians about all treatments or supplements they're taking, Arora says.

"The general public should be informed that some herbs can cause serious problems," he says.

What To Do

If you're considering an alternative treatment, take a look at these tips from the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

And for information on a range of specific alternatives, go to the Skeptic's Dictionary on Alternative Medicine.

For free access to more than 200,000 medical journal articles on alternative medicines and treatments, check a special database of the National Library of Medicine. However, keep in mind that most of the articles have been written for scientists and doctors.

SOURCES: Interviews with T.C. Chauhan, M.D., gastroenterology fellow, Brooklyn Hospital Center, New York City; Kanwarjit Arora, M.D., gastroenterologist, Cook County Hospital, Chicago
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