“there seems to be a law of the conservation of superstition: if it does not attach to one thing, it will attach to another. Man does not live by rationality alone.”
-Theodore Dalrymple, “The Myth of the Benign Nature of Herbal Remedies”, PJMedia, April 24 2012
Recently I talked to a neighbor who is a nurse, she said she regularly sees people in the emergency rooms with severe medical problems (such as heart arrythmias) brought on by use of herbal remedies.
And as Dalrymple points out in his article:
“One superstition among their middle-class, educated, and worried-well patients that most irritates doctors is that “natural” preparations, particularly herbal ones, are necessarily benign. People persist in believing this despite the fact that men (and women) have been poisoning one anther to death with herbal extracts since the dawn of recorded history, and most gardens have enough poisonous plants in them to decimate a countryside.”
A couple of books about poisonous plants that were a lot of fun to read (at least for me) are Dangerous Garden by David Stuart and Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart and Briony Morrow-Cribbs. Dalrymple is right, there are poisonous plants all over the place. Dangerous Garden in particular spent a lot of time talking about “Janus plants”, meaning plants which can have very beneficial or very harmful effects depending on the dosage or preparation.
However . . . there will still be people who will insist if it’s “natural” or “herbal” it’s safe. And that’s just not so. As recently covered in the news (and discussed in a bit of detail in Dalrymple’s article), there’s a pretty strong link between use of Aristolochia plants and an increased risk of upper urinary tract cancer. The most recent paper in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences discussed high rates of upper urinary tract cancer in Taiwan, where Aristolochia is often used in herbal remedies. But Dalrymple mentions past corollaries between Aristolochia consumption and upper urinary tract cancer in the Balkans and renal failure in Belgium.
So this is not a new connection, although the most recent paper is new in identifying how how the cancers are probably caused (there’s an acid in Aristolochia that binds to DNA in certain kidney cells and over time can cause cancerous mutations). Still, the correlation has been documented before and not only does Aristolochia continue to be used in herbal remedies, it’s a popular thing to use in Taiwan.
There are lots of herbal remedies that do have beneficial effects — but “herbal” doesn’t mean good. It just means it comes from herbs.
On a side note, Amazon seems to be indicating Dangerous Garden is back in print. Hooray!!!! When I looked it up a few years back, it looked like it was out of print and only available from resellers.