Hepatica

Herbal Quacks Kill People


"His mouth was now as effectually stopt, as that of quack must be, if, in the midst of a declamation on the great virtues of his pills & powders, the corpse of one of his martyrs should be brought forth, & deposited before the stage, as a testimony of his skill."

-Henry Fielding
1707-1754

   

I. Fundamental Herbal Quackery

The fresh spring leaves of the hepatica shown in the photograph were for centuries recommended for treatment of liver disease. It has no effect on liver disease, mind you, but in the winter the leaves turn the color of liver, & on the basis of sympathetic magic or the doctrine of signatures, the fact that nobody on earth was ever cured by the treatment didn't matter.

The herbal remedy business today works pretty much the same way.

Take for a single example the herbal remedy called variously Taheebo, Pau d'arco, or Lapacho. This is widely sold as a cancer cure, though it is not one.

A chemical ingredient called lapachol was extensively studied by the US National Cancer Institute, & proven to have no effect on human cancer cells. It was, however, found to be better absorbed by rats, & in sufficient concentration did have an anticancer effect for rodents. That this was not duplicable in human models has never slowed down the herb trade from marketing Taheebo products as cancer cures. That doses effective in rats, but not humans, had to be so concentrated that deadly side-effects of internal bleeding resulted, has never kept herbal marketeers from promoting it as safe & effective. That in fact there is none of this active ingredient in Taheebo as marketed through the health food industry is, of course, never mentioned.

Authentic lapachol is unrelated to the herbal remedy, & is not derived from a Tabebuia impetiginosa which is the species from which the healthfood store product comes from. This species is commonly used by the lumber industry in South America. There are about 100 species of Taheebo trees, & the one exported from Brazil, Peru, & Argentina for healthfood store distribution under the names Lapacho, Pau d'Arco, or Taheebo Tea, does not contain any lapachol whatsoever. Many tests have been run on many samples & rarely are there even so much as trace signatures of lapachol because packagers of these products will use any old scrap of any species of Taheebo tree so that when a product claims to be "100% Lapacho" this means the whole tree, mainly sawdust & leaves, with zero-percent lapachol.

Lapachol is derived from a completely different species, Tabebuia avellanedae, & must be synthesized into Beta-lapachone. It is this Beta-lapachone that has had slight but promising affects on tumors in rats, but not in people, & which had anticoagulant side-effects that made it lethal. This which is misrepresented by quack remedy promotors & manufacturers as somehow applicable to healthfood store Lapacho, though there is no relationship between the two.

But as a mental exercise, lets pretend that occasionally they do stumble upon the right species of Tabebula tree & include that in their sawdust mix, thereby, in a random sort of way, a customer may upon rare occasion obtain a product derived in part from the right species. Even then it would have no benefit for human cancer, but lapachol does have lesser medicinal qualities similar to quinine potentially useful in treating maleria, herpes, & a few other ailments; & may have an antifungle value used topically. The active ingredient exists exclusively under the bark of T. avellanedae, & in no other part of the tree.

Yet what is sold as herbal remedy is not limited to scrapings under the bark of the correct species. It is ground up wood particles, leaves, twigs, bark. It is essentially garden sawdust. Never mind that what you're buying isn't even likely to be the right species of Taheebo; even if on rare occasions it was the right species, the product is not restricted to the small area under the bark that contains lapachol, hence in the few cases that lapachol can be detected in a product at all, it is a barely registerable trace amount. This means, of course, that if there were some slight truth to some of the claims for lapachol, these claims in no way apply to the healthfood store products.

If you could get purer stuff (& you can't), then you would run the risk of killing yourself. Even at low doses, lapachol causes vomitting & interfers with blood clotting. If one had access to 100% medical grade lapachol as derived from the correct Taheebo species, & took it internally, it could suppress the body's clotting ability causing internal bleeding. If you didn't bleed to death, your maleria or herpes might be marginally better, but your cancer would be unaffected, unless worsened by inducing severe bleeding in tumors.

Often the manufacturers are very clever about how they mislead. "100% taheebo" means its pure mill waste. Literally the floor-sweepings of mills that process taheebo trees into lumber, then sell drums of sawdust to herbal remedy packagers who will advertise their product with statements that "the Taheebo tree contains lapachol," but nowhere do they actually claim their product contains lapachol.

The mill waste packagers publish literature that provides dubious statements about the value of lapachol, throw out a few catch-phrases like "immortal," "cancer treatment," "holistic healers," "ancient nutrient," add some completely fake folklore & vague references to amazing case studies that defy science; & even if it hadn't all been a total flimflam from word go, it remains that what they are selling is millwaste without active ingredients.

One company calling their product an "extract" (when at best it is a tincture of nothing medicinal) provides literature with their product that carefully avoids actually claiming the so-called "extract" confers any benefit. They allude often to the medicinal value of lapachol, but not to their product which contains no lapachol. The context implies medicinal value for their product, but if dragged into court, they can show that nowhere did they claim their product contained lapachol. And misleading one's marks is apparently legal.

For example, the boldest claim for a typical product from Life Force ran, "It contains a napthaquinone derivative called lapachol." If you took them to court with the independent lab test that shows conclusively that their product contains no lapachol, they can show that by "It contains" they meant only one or another Taheebo tree, not their product. Any direct claims they make on the package for the product per se is only that it is nutritional. Even that is a dubious claim, though sawdust could well be nutritious if you are a termite.

Yet all over the web taheebo products are being recommended by herbal advocates for the treatment of cancer. That is a death sentence for anyone who believes it. A quick google search finds on page one alone pages with titles like "Anti-Cancer Effects of Taheebo Tea," "Pau D'Arco, Cancer Cure," "Taheebo Cures Pancreatic Cancer." Articles galore state as absolute facts such falsehoods as "It cures a wide range of maladies from arthritis to ulcers to diabetes to cancer" & many vendors pose as individuals who were personally cured of cancer by Taheebo, therefore you should buy this worthless millwaste from them.

Throughout my web pages on individual garden plants, whenever I am discussing a plant widely used as an herbal medication, I discuss what as a tested & verifiable fact has healthful values, vs what is as yet unknown or unlikely, vs what is proven not to have any effect whatsoever beyond that of a placebo.

Some herbs like St John's Wort have very well defined medicinal values which, alas, are at odds with many of additional claims made for it by herb vendors, whose St John's Wart products (like the Taheebo product) in any case generally lacks more than trace amounts of the active ingredient known to be useful as a calmative. It's actually a good thing the store-shelf St John's Wort is mainly leaves & twigs, & not the drug found in the roots or berries, for otherwise it would be toxic. Using the worthless twigs & leaves is very profitable & still permits the package to promise the product contains 100% St Johns Wart products. That the product is useless medicinally does mean it is at least difficult to injure oneself by self-medicating. No benefit or injury.

Or consider Herbal Ephedra, an exceedingly potent herb even in the stale powdered or tincture forms once sold in health food stores. Like all potent medicines, it has dangerous side-effects. So of course, as one of the few genuinely potent herbs, it had to be pulled from the market because self-medicating loons were encouraged by profiteering vendors to overdose on it in order to lose weight, using it as a substitute for speed. Had it merely been used now & then to relieve upper respiratory congestion it would probably still be easily obtained, but people were gobbling it down to suppress apetite, & some of them managed to die for their sins.

Or consider ginseng which has proven values for all sorts of legitimate things, from pesticide to treatment for senility. It can be fatal if used in concert with anticlotting medications by reducing the effects of Coumadin, or harmful when used during pregnancy; but when used properly (as it so rarely is) specific medicinal values are undeniable. Even here, often what is sold to an unsuspecting dupe as ginseng root is not Panex ginseng or Panex quinquefolius at all, but the dried roots of Rumex hymenosepalus useful primarily in making tanning agents.

Or the root of ginseng may be obtained for supplementary treatment of diabetes, from herbalists overlooking the fact that it is not the root but the ginseng berry that contains the specific ginsenosides that have been shown to normalize glucose level & improve sensitivity to insulin. Or one may purchase ginseng preparations so adulterated with other ingredients as to realistically not be ginseng at all.

The vast majority of ginseng products are insufficiently standardized for them to be used at predictable dosages. So its undeniable potential for benefit is all but unachievable through the herb trade which is by & large unregulated & thoroughly unreliable.

Thus even well-documented medical benefits of a few excellent herbs tend even so to be misused for entirely the wrong purposes, or the herbs being marketed are derived from the wrong part of the plant so have no efficacy, or are entirely different species than what customers are misled into believing they have obtained. This makes even the best of herbs with the highest potential for benefit, in the forms marketed to the public, a hit & miss proposition.

And for the greater majority of the most popular herbs, when tested in double-blind studies, they turn out to have no human benefit beyond that also achieved by a control group receiving a placebo. Thus in most cases the efficacy of herbal remedies is entirely a miss & miss proposition!

II. Herbal Quacks Are Murderers

Because the majority of the most popular herbal remedies have no basis for the beliefs that surround them, all too often I'm debunking beliefs for which sound science exists which does not support the superstition.

When I find something genuinely valid I am eager to say so. But the most potent herbs also have harmful side-effects, & people who buy their herbs in a local health shop are by & large buying stuff that is the least beneficial, because potent herbs are either restricted in their availability, or vendors prefer not to risk being sued for selling things that have a high likelihood of landing the customer very swiftly in the emergency room of the hospital.

Because my pages frequently debunk "believer's" favorite remedies, they get the unhappy notion that I'm against herbal medicines entirely. It is their own close-mindedness to science that makes them unable to tell fraud from myth from possibility from actual benefit, otherwise they would notice how often I cite evidence of actual efficacy for very specific uses of several herbs. But since the greater majority of what is popularly available is not beneficial, & much of what remains is not benificial in the form being offered for sale, honest & informed assessments will rarely add up to positive recommendations. This makes certain types of believers fighting mad.

In consequence, I get occasional bits of hate-mail from people who approach this stuff on the basis of Faith, & become horribly excitable when they think their religion is being challenged. Others are invested in selling worthless remedies & had first to convince themselves before setting out to profitably dupe others; these types are emotionally forced to vilify factual science in order to never confront the overt danger they impose on misguided individuals who relied on their advocacy of the worst degrees of herbal quackery.

Worthless remedies for the common cold or mild viruses that pass soon even without treatment, or herbs for vague uncertain essentially psychological ailments, might as well be treated on the basis of superstition if the patient demands treatment even when no treatment is necessary. A hypochondriac might as well go for the placebo effect rather than waste an actual doctor's time trying to find ailments so unspecific that even the sufferer probably knows they have no basis for complaints. Unfortunately, these wackadoodle naifs also rely on folklore when treating life-threatening diseases, & can end up killing themselves for failure to seek adequate medical assistance for treatable illnesses.

The eagerness of the public to be duped by herbalists even to the point of risking their lives & the lives of their children or pets has always bewildered me. So I was captivated by the 2004 study co-headed by Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University, & published in the Annals of Oncology.

Professor Ernst investigated world-wide-web advice from herbalists & herbal advocates on the treatment of cancer. The study focused on 32 websites that attracted a whopping ten out of every thousand web surfers, so the first point here is the fraudulant information on the web influences an enormous number of gullible people.

Within these influential websites, 118 cancer cure recommendations were found, not one of which has ever been shown to have even a distant possible chance of curing cancer, though some of the herbs recommended are known to interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications & chemotherapy.

Three percent of the sites openly discouraged people from seeking conventional treatment for life-threatening illnesses, but recommended reliance exclusively on the alternatives they were advocating or selling. An additional sixteen percent did the same thing indirectly through the information provided, encouraging reliance on herbal alternatives to the exclusion of qualified medical care. But even those websites that stated their so-called cures were merely "complementary" rather than everything the patient needs, their herbal recommendations even then put the patient at risk for believing self-medicating with herbs was sufficient, or failing to inform physicians about self-medicating with herbs that interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications or chemotherapy.

Professor Ernst hoped his analysis would show people why it is that people are dying as a direct consequence of their devotion to herbal remedies & fatal internet cures. "Our conclusion was that a significant proportion of these websites are actually a risk to cancer patients. Not everything that is natural is risk-free. People should use their common sense & think twice about the motives of these websites."

No less than one-fourth of the public have used herbal remedies of one kind or another, the majority of which are useless for the purpose claimed or intended. Given the poor quality of the advice provided by advocates & vendors, the user has no easy method of sorting out the very tiny percentage of potent or safe herbal medicines from the greater percentage that has no authentic health value.

The American Heart Association on prevention of heart disease, the American Cancer Society on cancer treatment, & other public health advocates around the world have issued warnings that food supplement treatments either have no effect at all, or interfere with effective conventional treatments. And yet the herb advocates encourage a mistrust of conventional medicine in favor of the advice of charlatons. And magical-thinking clientelle end up placing their very lives in the hands of check-out tellers & promotional pamphleteers, holding these charlatons in higher esteme than trained physicians & the mysterious "they" who preposterously don't want us to know that cheap & reliable cures for all things including AIDS & cancer already exist can be found from health vendors, stocked right between the all-natural potato chips & the meatless weanies.

Always bare in mind when seeking advice from herb advocates: These nutters will even pretend to be able to treat cancer & watch you die while lining their own pockets. So why would they be any less liable to concoct myths & lies that pander to your hypochondria or your gullibility or your sincere wish for magical fixes for every real or imagined medical condition.

   



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