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Issue No 104
Fall 2005 
page 46

Herbal Myths EXPOSED

Several cases of “ginseng syndrome” were found in people taking ginseng to get "high" through very high doses—up to 15 g per day.

Most indigenous healing systems do have preferred herbs for each gender, such as ginseng for men. But often this reflects the availability of better choices for the other gender (dong quai works better for women), not because they lack effect or cause damage.

 
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Myth 8
Echinacea can be very toxic to the liver.
This herb just can’t win. At least in this myth, we can guess at the source.

This myth probably stems from a popular book for professionals: Herbal Medicinals: A Clinician’s Guide, edited by Lucinda G Miller and Wallace J Murray (Hawthorn Press, 1998). It claims that echinacea is “hepatotoxic and should not be taken for more than eight weeks.” The only citation given comes from the German Commission E monographs. But when you look at that document, no such recommendations appear. The misinformation probably comes from a paper published by the prestigious medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine by the same author, Miller, a Pharm D (Doctor of Pharmacy). She writes, “Since hepatotoxic effects may be associated with persistent use, it [echinacea] should not be taken with other known hepatotoxic drugs.” But she gives no explanatory evidence.

The discussion of the chemistry gets technical, and confusion often arises over a class of chemicals (pyrrolizidine alkaloids), some of which are toxic. Echinacea contains the nontoxic version, however, in the irrelevant amount of 0.006 percent. To make the waters muddier, the abstract and the text of the paper use conflicting terminology to describe the chemicals.

There’s absolutely no evidence of liver damage from ingesting echinacea, so there’s no reason to worry about this myth.

Myth 9
Long-term use of ginseng causes "ginseng abuse syndrome."
Several articles have identified a “ginseng abuse syndrome” in people who take it for long periods of time. But herbalists and scientific literature widely criticize this “fact.”

The concept of the syndrome came from a 1979 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by R K Siegel, who studied 133 ginseng users, monitoring them at intervals for two years. Ten percent of users experienced the syndrome (anxiety and insomnia, among other symptoms) and 16 percent experienced elevated blood pressure.

The study was plagued with major scientific errors. Among them: Siegel didn’t actually identify what herb the subjects were taking. They used an assortment of selfselected commercial ginseng products. Manufacturers refer to several different plant species as “ginseng,” and commonly make substitutes for the real thing. Siegel himself admitted that adulterants caused some of the symptoms of the syndrome.

According to Chinese medical practices, overuse, drastic overdose, or inappropriate use of authentic ginseng can lead to headache, insomnia, heart palpitations, and a rise in blood pressure. But the average person will find ginseng a safe, risk-free, staminaenhancing tonic when taken in proper doses. Don’t let the specter of “ginseng abuse syndrome” scare you.

Myth 10
Each herb helps treat one particular disease.
You’ve heard this one. Only men can take saw palmetto, since it’s for prostate health. Only depressed people should take St. John’s wort.

Herbs contain many different active chemicals. In times past, virtually all medicinal herbs had multiple uses. For example, saw pal-

 
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