What about herbal medicine ?

8 Nov

When I use homeopathy as an example in my rational thinking lectures I inevitably get asked ‘what about herbal medicine ?’. My reply to this is usually along the lines ‘herbal medicines are different, in that there may well be some active efficacious ingredient, but (stealing a line from Dara O’Briain) what herbal medicine has been tested and shown to work is now just called medicine ‘. I’ve always been conscious that this is a slightly flippant response, but up until now I’ve not had much more useful to add.

This week I came across an article in the New York Times suggesting that many herbal medicines don’t actually contain what they claim to (via @wildscrutineer). The New York TImes article reports a peer-reviewed study from the journal BMC Medicine that uses DNA testing to examine to contents of 44 herbal products. What is startling about this study is that many of the herbal products tested contained contaminants (i.e. ingredients not listed on the label), or in a number of cases contained ingredients entirely different from those listed on the label. In some cases the authors found contaminants that they believed to be toxic.

What I find interesting about this study is that it rather changes the ‘question’ about herbal medicine. Whatever ones views on conventional medicine one accepts that the medicine contains exactly what it says on the label. With herbal medicine it seems that we haven’t yet got as far ‘does it work ?’,  we need to establish ‘is it what it says it is ?’

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