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The Practical Herbalist

Cultural Confusion And Herbal Safety

Over the past twenty or so years there has been quite a few problems in the importation of Chinese herbal formulas into this country. The problems have made it difficult to present traditional Chinese medicine to the western consumers. In 1998 California did an extensive analysis of Chinese herbal pills available in the state. They found a significant percentage of products contained pharmaceutical chemicals, misidentified herbs and heavy metal contamination. Regulators were up in arms, and yet the herbal community was not surprised. Most well trained herbalists already knew which products had questionable ingredients. Many hailed the study as proof that herbalists knew what we were doing. The products provided by top companies tested fine. It was the products from discount China town shops that had the most problems. The heart of the issue is really a lack of understanding of Chinese herbal medicine and the culture from which it was born.

The rules in China are different than here in the U.S. The Chinese see nothing wrong with mixing various western pharmaceuticals with herbs. The idea is that the drugs make the herbs more potent and the herbs calm the side effects of the drugs. This is seen as appropriate in China where there is no specific separation between "herbs" and other medicines. China town consumers want the products from China that they are familiar with. These mixed products were generally not available outside the China towns.

Many herbal products contain heavy metals because they were meant to. Just as with many pharmacological drugs, heavy metals affect the body in specific ways. There are many traditional herbal formulas that use herbs that are known to contain high levels of heavy metals. While these formulations are not in wide spread use in the US, they are available. It is also important to note that all plants absorb a certain amount of heavy metals as they grow. The amounts are usually incidental, but would be increased as you process and concentrate a herb into a medicinal pill. Even at increased concentration most of these herbal products are meant to be used for a short time, limiting the heavy metal exposure. American researchers don’t have this type of information and assume that these products are being used like vitamins on a long term basis, which is simply not the case if the patient is under the care of a herbalist.

Misidentified herbs are also not surprising. In Traditional Chinese Herbal medicine, many herbs were given the same name based on their use medicinally. Substitution of one herb for another based on what was available locally is common and expected. That does not fly with American law that says the label must accurately list what is in the bottle. Many Traditional products in China list banned substances as a selling point with the assumption that the Chinese consumer is aware that the product actually contains an equally potent substitution. For example, tiger bone is listed on many products because it is popular. It is not legal to put tiger bone into a product, so many companies use substitutes, yet they still may call their product say "Tiger Bone Special Pill" as a marketing gimmick. Chinese consumers assume there is a substitution, while Americans would consider this fraud.

In the end the real problem is one of culture. Chinese consumers do not expect the government to watch out for them. They buy products based on the reputation of the company that produced it or the herbalist that sells it. Americans assume that the government is watching over these things. The answer for many Certified Herbalists is to buy the herbs for our patients from suppliers who take the place of government regulation. The supplier I use has exclusive contracts with specific companies that are certified to meet Australian Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) production standards (currently more stringent than the US). The importer oversees all aspects of harvest and production as well as conducting independent chemical analysis to make sure that the products exceed American legal requirements. Unlike stores, Certified Herbalists are acting as medical providers and carry medical malpractice insurance. This creates a chain of responsibility which consumers should be aware of whenever they are purchasing herbal products.

David Bock

This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"

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David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine

Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066