Safety of Chinese Herbal Medicines

Various Chinese Herbal Medicines can pose one or more heath risks, such as:

• Allergic Reactions: the person using the Chinese Herbal treatment may be allergic to something contained in the substance administered to them. However, similar allergic reactions can also occur in Western Medicine, or even when people are doing something as innocuous as eating new foods.

• Confusion: depending on location and time, many Chinese medicines have different names for the same ingredient. Worse still is the fact that ingredients with vastly different medical properties have shared similar or even same names. However, Chinese Herbal Medicine authorities are working towards standardizing names and improving standards.

• Misuse of Herbs: There have been cases of herbs being used in therapies in the West which conflict with the traditional uses of the herb. For example, Ephedra (Ma Huang, commonly called Help Yellow) was used for a while in Western weight loss products, a usage that directly conflicts with traditional Asian uses of the herb. The use of this herb is now banned in the USA, where it was decided in Court that “Ephedra posed an unreasonable risk to consumers”.

• Poisoning: while rare, there are usually a few deaths of chronic poisoning from ingested Chinese Herbal Medicines each year in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. To be fair, most of these deaths occur when patients self administer herbs to themselves or take unprocessed versions of toxic herbs. For example, the raw and unprocessed form of Aconite (Fuzi) is the most common cause of poisoning. Aconite in Chinese Herbal Medicine is usually only used in processed form, in which the toxins have been destroyed by heat.

• Toxic and Carcinogenic Compounds: some potentially toxic and carcinogenic compounds are sometimes prescribed in Chinese Herbal Medicines to treat poisoning. The idea being to “using poison to cure poison”. Examples include Arsenic and Cinnabar. In some cases, unprocessed herbal therapies have been adulterated with toxic chemicals in order to alter or improve their effect. Such a practice is becoming rare though, because of much tighter regulations regarding the growing, processing, and prescription of various herbal therapies. Shark Fin Soup is traditionally regarded as beneficial for health throughout East Asia. However, sharks are apex predators, and their flesh contains relatively high levels of mercury, which is well known for its adverse affects on health and wellbeing.

In many countries, Chinese Herbal therapies can only be administered by trained practitioners, and, in these cases, such treatment should be quite safe.