Herbs, As Nature Made Them

(Sarah L. Voisin - Twp)
By Audrey Edwards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

With an estimated 19 percent of Americans using herbal medicines and other dietary supplements, jars of capsules and tablets crowd grocery and drugstore shelves. But in some areas, particularly in ethnic communities, many people buy their medicinal herbs in raw plant form.

People with roots in China, Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent often use herbs in this form because of cultural tradition, because they're less expensive than processed supplements or because some herbs are not available as extracts. Experts say many people also make the mistake of thinking "natural" products are safe, although medicinal herbs can be toxic and are subject to only loose government regulation.

While herbal medicines in any form pose risks, those purchased raw may pose some additional dangers, according to physician Steven Bratman, chief author of a comprehensive herb database, the TNP Natural Health Encyclopedia.

Because raw plants are not subjected to the kind of chemical analysis that manufacturers generally perform when processing extracts, Bratman said, potency may vary. Some herbal mixes, such as those used in Chinese medicine, he said, contain plants in the Aristolochia family, which can be toxic to the kidneys. Indian herbal medicines, he said, may contain heavy metals -- such as lead, mercury and arsenic -- that also can be toxic. Some toxic plants may also be mistaken for harmless ones, particularly given that some plants go by several names.

In the Washington area, fresh, dried or powdered herbs are most likely to be found in herbal shops and ethnic groceries. (For examples, see the chart on Page F5.) Sometimes vendors sell whole plants, sometimes just the roots, leaves, bark or fruit. Some herbs (like holy basil leaves, an Indian herb) are eaten fresh; some, like the berries of Chinese qi chi, or wolfberry, are brewed into a tea; some are mixed together into soups and tonics. Just as with many processed supplements, there's no proof of effectiveness for many of these traditional products.

While the Food and Drug Administration governs sales of medicinal herbs in plant form, just as it does bottled supplements, current laws treat them more like foods than drugs and don't guarantee that products are safe, effective, pure or meet any specified standards. Herbalist Yiping Hu, who has clinics in Bethesda and Northwest Washington, said the suppliers of her herbs wash and boil them in licorice or wine to remove toxins. But William Obermeyer, vice president for research of ConsumerLab.com, which evaluates dietary supplements and other products, warns that inadequate processing of herbs could allow toxins to remain. Similarly, he said, fungus, mold or toxins could be present in plants that were not washed or dried properly before packing and shipping.

Misidentification of herbs can also pose a danger. Obermeyer cited a 1997 case in which a woman was hospitalized with an irregular heart rate after taking what she thought was an herbal laxative. An investigation found that, instead of containing plantain, the product contained digitalis, an herb capable of causing cardiac arrest. The supplier later said he had misidentified the herb in its raw form.

One way to avoid misidentification, said Obermeyer, is to find reputable herbal vendors.

"It is about trusting the person who is putting the herbs into the bag," he said. Herbal medicines can also interact dangerously with prescription drugs. Experts urge patients to consult their doctors before trying any herbal products.

Smile Herb Shop in College Park grows some of the herbal plants it sells, including holy basil and rue. Co-owner Tom Wolfe said his rue, used by Hispanics and Sephardic Jews to treat digestive problems, was snapped up quickly when it went up for sale in May.

Da Hsin Trading Co., in Washington's Chinatown, sells a variety of dried Chinese herbs, either stored in jars (dong quai, for example) or prepackaged (wild chrysanthemum flower). Herbs are sold by weight and can usually be bought individually or in a combination, depending on the intended use. Lixing Lao, director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Research Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine, said the Chinese often boil herbs with chicken, pork or beef in the name of general health maintenance.

Twice a day, Iantha Gantt-Wright, a 51-year-old diversity consultant, drinks a combination of Chinese herbs that she buys from Hu to boost her immune system. "I'm more worried about using conventional medicine. I stopped using it when I was in my twenties," she said. "Herbs make me feel safer."

Winny Lui, a 48-year-old Howard County librarian, said the soups she makes every other day with Chinese herbs help maintain her health and that of her family.

"It is more nutritious than drinking soda during dinner," she said.

Because nearly anyone can call himself an herbalist, Lao advises consumers to use those credentialed by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Members of the American Herbalists Guild, said Wolfe, also have advanced education and knowledge of medicinal use of plants. ?

Comments: edwardsa@washpost.com.

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