As new rules come into force regulating herbal medicines and supplements, experts give their advice on the most common remedies and reveal how to gain the most benefit from natural solutions to health problems.
By Gabrielle Fagan
While there’s a whole host of over-the-counter pills and potions for ailment these days, many of us are opting for old-fashioned remedies used by our grandmothers and generations before them.
At least six million Britons have consulted a herbal practitioner in the past two years, according to Ipsos MORI research and around a third of us, according to research by OnePoll, has used herbal medicine to treat conditions such as a cold, backache or the menopause.
It’s thought many find taking so-called ‘natural’ solutions for ailments more appealing than putting chemicals into their bodies via prescription drugs, and there’s also concern among doctors and the public about the over-use of antibiotics.
But until now we haven’t been able to tell whether herbal remedies were safe - that changes on May 1 when the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme comes into force, meaning herbal medicines will have to adhere to certain guidelines or they’ll be taken off the shelves.
It means at least 50 herbs, including horny goat weed (so-called natural Viagra), and wild yam will no longer be stocked in health food shops, according to the British Herbal Medicine Association.
So far around 31 herbs have received the registration including well-recognised ones such as arnica, echinacea, ginkgo and St John’s Wort.
“The fact is that herbal medicines needed regulation for consumer safety,” says pharmacist Dr Dick Middleton.
“Just as food regulations improved safety for the public, I believe these will improve quality standards for herbal remedies and help people recognise what’s approved and what’s not.”
The new scheme, which can cost companies up to £120,000 per product, does not, however, call on companies to prove that supplements work to gain registration.
But Dr Middleton says: “Products will have to be shown to have been used for 30 years as a traditional remedy for a particular ailment.
“For instance, St John’s Wort for low mood, or Feverfew, used for years to prevent migraines. While there may not be thousands of scientific studies to back either up we know they work otherwise people wouldn’t have used them for generations.”
Generally, it’s important to remember that any medicine, herbal or otherwise, has the potential to have adverse effects or side effects, points out the MHRA, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
It points out that standards of unlicensed medicines can vary widely and they have not been assessed by the body for quality and safety purposes.
So people should use herbal remedies with care, it advises, and should also be aware that they may also interact with other medicines being taken and result in reduced or enhanced effects of them.
“Evidence for the efficacy of herbal medicines is growing and they may offer cheap, safe and effective approaches for common complaints,” says Professor George Lewith, professor of health research at Southampton University.
“But regulation is essential and welcome and we believe will give doctors more confidence to advise or prescribe approved remedies for certain conditions.”
Top tips for herbal safety
:: As well as showing traditional use over years, to qualify under the new scheme a product must also show reliable and accurate information on the packaging or leaflet; conform to specific manufacturing guidelines.
:: A herbal product meets the new requirements if it has a nine-digit number on the packaging starting with the letters THR.
:: The new regulations don’t apply to all supplements sold online, many of which are imported from the USA or outside Europe.
To avoid problems only buy online from reputable sources such as Boots or Lloyds Pharmacy. If you consult a practitioner check they’re a qualified medical herbalist.
:: If you are taking any medication, have an existing health condition, or are pregnant, always check with a pharmacist or GP before taking a supplement.
A guide to registered herbal products for six of the most common ailments
:: Low mood: St John’s Wort
There is some scientific evidence that St John’s Wort, thought to have been used for 2,000 years, is useful for anxiety and low mood, although it can interact with certain drugs, such as the Pill, and limit its effectiveness so you should take extra precautions.
“There are many ways to treat anxiety and low mood without resorting to prescription medicines such as by increasing exercise,” says Dr Pixie McKenna, presenter of Channel Four’s Embarrassing Bodies and author of The Handbag Doctor (Kyle Cathie, £9.99).
“Herbal remedies, such as St John’s Wort can also prove beneficial for those looking for an alternative to prescription medication, but look for a high quality product and always check with a doctor that there are no contraindications with any other medication you are taking.”
St John’s Wort is not a proven therapy for depression, which if not adequately treated can become severe. Consult a doctor if you or someone you care about may be experiencing depression.
Neuropret, which contains St John’s Wort, is £14.99 for 30 tablets, available from Boots and health stores: www.bionorica.co.uk
:: PMS: Agnus Castus
It’s commonly used to help relieve the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as irritability, breast tenderness and bloating, and menstrual cramps.
“For a significant proportion premenstrual syndrome can be incredibly stressful and draining,” says Dr McKenna.
“Benefits of agnus castus on PMS have been well documented, and it exerts a balancing effect on the activity of the female sex hormones, stimulating the production of progesterone relative to oestrogen, which reduces the effect of the oestrogen in the body, a key factor in PMS symptoms.”
Cyclopret, £8.25 for 30 tablets, from Boots and independent health food stores.
:: Digestion & Over-indulgence: Milk Thistle
Milk Thistle & Artichoke Leaf Studies published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology and the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology says milk thistle may help protect the liver and speed up recovery after alcohol.
“While it’s certainly not advisable to do this on a regular basis, you can help lessen the effects of the odd splurge by trying a natural product such as milk thistle,” says nutritionist Mary Strugar.
Thisilyn Milk Thistle, £9.99 for 30 capsules, and Thisilyn Maximum Strength Milk Thistle, £12.99 for 30 capsules. Both available from Boots and Holland & Barrett.
:: Stress: Rhodiola Rosea
This herb has been used for years in Russia and Scandinavia to help people deal with the cold Siberian climate and stressful life.
“Stress is very common and can have many different triggers for each individual which can cause considerable strain on the body,” says Oxfordshire GP Dr David Edwards.
“Rhodiola rosea is a natural alternative which can help with the temporary relief of symptoms associated with stress such as fatigue, exhaustion, and mild anxiety and has been used for 30 years as a traditional remedy.”
Vitano, contains Rhodiola rosea root extract, £13.27 for 30 tablets. Available from Boots, pharmacies and health food stores. www.vitano.co.uk
:: Joint pain: Devil’s Claw
It can be used for the relief of backache, rheumatic or muscular pain and general aches and pains in the muscles and joints.
“This can be a very useful remedy as conventional medicine offers over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, but these can irritate the stomach and are not suitable for those with heart problems and asthma,” says pharmacist Dr Dick Middleton.
Flexiherb, contains Devil’s Claw root extract, a plant native to the Kalahari desert in South Africa. It is £10.20 for 40 tablets, from Boots. Call 01628 401 980 or visit www.flexiherb.co.uk
:: Sleep: Valerian
It has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, and may be helpful for the temporary relief of sleep disturbance.
“Conventional over-the-counter medicines to aid sleep often contain an anti-histamine which make you feel drowsy quickly but may have a ‘hangover’ effect the next day,” says Dr Middleton.
“Valerian, although it can take a few weeks to become effective and needs to be taken over a period of a few weeks for maximum effect, does not have the morning-after ‘heavy-head’ effect.”
If you experience no improvement or sleeplessness continues for a month or more you must consult a doctor.
NiteHerb, contains 150mg of extract from valerian root, and is £6.12 for 30 tablets. Available from Boots and other pharmacies and health food stores. www.niteherb.co.uk
: Menopause: Black Cohosh
Black cohosh has also been recommended by doctors in Europe for many years as a natural alternative to treat symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes, night sweats, poor sleep, mood changes, vaginal dryness and irritability.
“Moderate to severe menopause symptoms will affect almost 70% of women in the UK,” says Dr McKenna.
“Many of these women will be placed on HRT and this will help a proportion to manage symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats.
“However, for some women, a more natural approach may be suitable as there are less side-effects and contraindications. Recent research has shown black cohosh to be a viable alternative to HRT.”
Menopret costs £10.25 for 30 tablets. Available from Boots and independent health food stores.