Herbal remedies made from plant leaves, bark, berries, flowers, and roots have been used to heal illnesses, diseases, and psychological disorders for centuries. Today, with the ease of the internet, you can self-diagnose, order next day delivery, and even learn how to make your own. Last year three million Britons took herbal remedies to treat everything from fever to joint pain.
But renewed debate about the safety of these remedies was sparked last week following the news of an EU crackdown on herbalists and Chinese medicine practitioners who operate unregulated at present. Under the new law, from 2011 sales of all herbal remedies except for a small number of products for minor ailments will also be banned. Regulators warn that many of us believe that "herbal" is synonymous with "safe", whereas herbal remedies can be deadly.
"Research we conducted last year found a significant proportion of people believed 'herbal' means 'benign'," says Richard Woodfield, Head of Herbal Policy at the Medicines and Health care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). "That means people are more liable to self-medicate, and to neglect to inform their doctors, even though there's a risk that the herbal remedy will react with any prescription drugs. They're also more vulnerable to fraudulent, even criminal operators who put products out which are heavily adulterated with dangerous pharmaceuticals."
The actress Sophie Winkleman is reported to have taken aconite, or monkshood, found in some 'herbal Valium' last month to calm her nerves prior to her wedding to Freddie Windsor. The plant while relatively harmless in licensed homeopathic remedies in which it is rigorously diluted, can be extremely dangerous, in herbal remedies, even lethal.
"If you were to buy aconite root, which is banned from licensed herbal products in the UK, but can still be found in products bought over the internet, and make yourself a herbal tea with it, you'd be dead within five minutes," says Dr Linda Anderson, Pharmaceutical Assessor of the MHRA.
Last year, scientists at Boston University found that a fifth of Ayurvedic medicines – popular traditional Indian herbal remedies – bought over the internet contained dangerous levels of lead, mercury or arsenic, which could cause stomach pains, vomiting or liver problems.