Dangerous Supplements: Incompetent Research or Intentional Deception?

A recent article appearing on the Yahoo Health website captioned 'Dangerous Supplements' and dated August 3, 2010 (see link below) contains some serious misstatements of fact and omits pertinent information needed by readers in making informed health choices. In some instances the omissions are of so critical a nature as to amount to intentional deception, and I feel these need to be addressed publicly.

The feature, attributed to the publication Consumer Reports, states that "we [presumably, Consumer Reports] have identified a dozen supplement ingredients that we think consumers should avoid because of health risks, including cardiovascular, liver, and kidney problems like kidney stones which can be treated with herbal medicines like chanca piedra. We found products with those ingredients readily available in stores and online."

These, labeled by the authors as 'the Dirty Dozen' include aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.

It is on one of these, namely comfrey, that I want to focus my attention - but the unimaginably shoddy research design, sloppy methodology and rationally unjustifiable conclusions stand as stark testimonials to the kind and quality of 'scientific investigation' brought to bear when the therapeutic efficacy of plant medicines is questioned in an obvious but unspoken comparison to that of commercially manufactured pharmaceutical agents.

Due to low level concentrations of group of substances known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA's) in the leaves and roots of Symphytum officinale, some authorities no longer recommend using comfrey internally. These alkaloids are reported to have caused liver damage when consumed over a long period of time. Have the dangers of internal use been exaggerated out of proportion with the truth? Are such claims in any fashion accurate? And what was the methodology used to gather data to support them?

The 'study' most often cited isolated and concentrated the PA's in comfrey and injected them multiple times intraperitoneally to 2-week-old rats over a period of seven (7) weeks, after which liver damage was observed, the equivalent of feeding a human-size rat some 5,700 comfrey leaves.

What's wrong with the foregoing picture?

This kind of research is not only methodologically flawed and irrelevant but totally meaningless and counterproductive when we compare it with how comfrey is actually used as a therapeutic agent by humans.

The physiological effects on a human moderately using a whole plant medicine such as comfrey will be as different as surgery from a shotgun wound.

In a landmark study published in Science, cancer authority Bruce Ames, Ph.D., chairman of the Biochemistry Department at the University of California at Berkeley, attempted to estimate the average person's lifetime cancer risk from exposure to hundreds of man-made and naturally occurring carcinogens. Dr. Ames estimated that one cup of comfrey tea posed about the same cancer risk as one peanut butter sandwich, which contains traces of the natural carcinogen aflatoxin.

I believe that these studies debunking the therapeutic efficacy of herbs and highlighting their supposed dangers - and there have been many of them, which one reads about constantly in the popular press - and that have been conducted by putatively reputable scientists at prestigious institutes and universities have been deceptive, riddled with omissions and filled with exaggeration and deeply flawed post-hoc conclusion-drawing.

It seems worth noting that in one recent calendar year, there were a reported 7,600 deaths and serious adverse events resulting from the use of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). Further, Acetaminophen use is the number one cause of acute liver failure (ALF) in the United States accounting for 50% of all cases of ALF and carry a 30% mortality. Nevertheless, acetaminophen is a highly successful product with sales easily exceeding a billion dollars annually.

How many deaths and adverse effects can be laid at comfrey's doorstep for a similar period? Or at the doorsteps of the other eleven herbs about which we are cautioned in Consumer Reports' article? In comparison, how many deaths and serious illnesses have arisen as a consequence of the appropriate use (ignore the improper or injudicious use) of both over-the-counter and prescription medications for a like period?

My reader can do the math. I think s(he) will find the result both shocking as well as starkly illuminative of the fact that there are interests at play here that have nothing whatever to do with medication safety or public health.

Yahoo article 'Dangerous Supplements' can be found at: ?http://health.yahoo.net/articles/nutrition/dangerous-supplements

Article provided by William Courson, BVSA, D.Ayur., CH, an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center in Miami, FL.

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