Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Herbal Health Hazard
13 November 2017

Herbal Health Hazard

The words 'natural', 'botanical', and 'herbal' when applied to remedies and supplements conjure notions of health and wellness. But often what those words really mean is that the pill or potion in question has not been rigorously tested for either safety or efficacy. A prime example of when 'natural' does not mean 'safe' is the Aristolochia genus of plants (pictured), used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of a wide range of ailments. It's well established that aristolochic acid, abundant in these plants, is a potent carcinogen that produces a distinct mutational signature in a person’s DNA. There's strong evidence that ingestion of the compound leads to cancers of the kidney and urinary tract and new research now also links the acid to liver cancers. Worryingly, although the dangers are well documented, it is thought many people continue to use these plants as natural alternative medicines.

Written by Ruth Williams

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