Since the birth of herbal medicine, science has been the fundamental basis of determining the fate of potential herbal products. The early Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Chinese physicians utilized scientific principles for their guidance to develop natural therapies. This tradition was enhanced by the Arab and the Renaissance physicians and has continued to present day.
Science is the universal language spoken and accepted by all interested parties in the development and use of natural remedies for which there is a consensus. That is not to say that there aren’t any problems with this model. After all, some randomized clinical trials may have certain limitations and manipulation of data e.g. statistics may reveal bias, but these are not the problems of science per-se. This fault lies entirely with the people that misuse the science. Nevertheless, evaluating natural products through the use of scientific laws is by far the best and ONLY way forward. Let us not resort to the dark arts for evaluating herbal products by the use of testing machines, or asking the patient to hold on to the bottle of a natural remedy while simultaneously pushing down on their extended arm to determine suitability of a particular remedy. These approaches are only marginally better than swinging a dead chicken over ones head while standing on one leg. One may as well utilize a Ouija board for product selection!
Today, more than ever, we need to discard such unscrupulous and unscientific practices from the field of nutritional medicine and unreservedly and rigorously support and embrace the scientific process. In this day of technology and information, manufacturers, regulators, physicians, consumers and patients are demanding answers that only science can provide. Moreover, there are steps being taken by many stakeholders to provide such answers. This is good thing. Furthermore, all is well on the research front which I personally witnessed at a recent scientific conference on this very precise subject.
The modern and very impressive FDA National Center for Natural Products Research is run by the very capable and well respected researcher Dr Ikhlas Khan. The center is located at the University of Mississippi or Ole Miss and was the setting for a gathering by many of the world’s top scientists in the field of pharmacognosy. Pharmacognosy is a scientific discipline which is part of curriculum in every pharmacy school in the world. This discipline represents cultivation, identification, isolation, synthesis, manufacturing, extraction, testing, safety and pharmacology of botanicals.
Attendees from over twenty seven countries were present and researchers and regulators from various agencies presented data on many issues in this vibrant field. It was heart-warming to see the wealth of research being conducted and the rapid progress being made in all areas. Two examples will drive these points home.
First, two talks highlighted the problem of spiking or adulteration of natural products. The first example was provided by Dr El Sohly also of NPNCR who presented data on various natural products being sold as dietary supplements such as pelargonium oil with methyl hexaneamine (MHA), the latter being highly touted for weight loss and increasing lean muscle mass no doubt catching the attention of the body builder market. All manufacturers claimed that MHA was naturally present and was part of the pelargonium plant. Careful testing showed that this was not the case and MHA which can be toxic was added or spiked to the oil. The second case was presented by our own Dr Robin Marles from Health Canada who highlighted the major safety issues affecting natural products through adulteration. Dr Marles claimed that adulteration was a form of fraud that was economically motivated by unscrupulous raw material suppliers hoping to sell a greater volume of their product by substituting or diluting authentic botanical ingredients. This was done by increasing weight and volume with inert materials, or as in Dr Sohly’s case, artificially increasing potency through the addition or spiking of undeclared botanical or pharmaceutical substances. Besides the economic fraud, there is the troubling issue of potential toxicity.
The second example was provided by Dr Muhammad Choudhary from Pakistan probably the most prolific researcher (with over 670 publications!) in the field. Dr Choudhary gave an illuminating example of drug discovery from folklore! Epilepsy is quite prevalent worldwide particularly in the developing nations. Unfortunately, the pharmaceuticals used (whether first, second or third generation ant epileptics) have a failure rate of around 35% and many cause toxicity over continued use. Dr Choudhary identified a particular isolated community in Pakistan located in the “Roof of the world” which used natural indigenous plants to treat epilepsy. After screening these plants, and isolating the actives, and removing any toxic components and further testing, they produced a product that had a remarkable success rate and is safe to take. The product is now patented worldwide.
This example shows that following established principles of pharmacognosy, much can be achieved by using nature as a source of natural products.
You may also be interested in: “Natural Health Products: The Hype, Promises & Lies”
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