By Alan Tillotson, Ph.D.
August 2, 2000
For Immediate Release
A mass epidemic of hysteria against common plants use for health purposes has emerged over the past year. Local outbreaks are reported occurring in all parts of the United States. MD’s and former regulatory officials seem hardest hit. The hysteria seems to be fueled by physicians and reporters untrained in the proper use of plant medicines responding to reports of specific isolated problems attributed to herbs, and then jumping to false, excessive and unwarranted conclusions based on limited or erroneous information. The new syndrome is being labeled hysterical phytophobia.
In a typical case, a Wilmington, Delaware neurologist was shown a list of plant medicines given to an elderly patient by a professional herbalist, and promptly wrote a letter to her family physician saying that one of the herbs could be fatal. It turned out that the herbalist had given the woman ginseng root in small dosage, appropriate for her age and symptom picture. The neurologist, with no background or training in herbal medicine, misread Chinese ginseng root (Panax ginseng) for jimson weed (Datura stramonium), a toxic plant which contains the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, and is not commercially available.
News reports reporting an article in the March 1999 edition of the journal Fertility and Sterility, stated that St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), echinacea (Echinacea species) and ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) might have a negative impact on human fertility. Researchers from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California had reported that directly dosing human sperm with large amounts of these herbs in the test tube caused the sperm to lose its ability to penetrate hamster eggs. The lead author of the study, Richard R. Ondrizek, M.D. was upset and “flabbergasted” that his research was being used in the media to promote the idea that these herbs could cause infertility in humans.
In February, 2000, Reuters reported that juice derived from the fruit of the Noni tree (Morinda citrifolia), a popular health food, was a hidden source of potassium and therefore could be hazardous for patients with kidney disease. According to an article in the February issue of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, the juice contained potassium, but did not include this information on the label. The amount of potassium in the juice was found to be similar to that of orange juice and tomato juice, common food items which are sometimes restricted in the diets of patients with kidney disease. According to the researchers, the case illustrates the potential dangers of herbal products. However, James Duke, Ph.D. developer of the voluminous USDA databases on natural products points out that “All plants contain potassium. Must we idiotically and neurotically label all our foods as hazards to nephrotics? . . . Certainly they should advise people that the beet, chicory, Chinese cabbage, cucumber, dill, lambsquarter, lettuce, mung bean, oats, purslane, radish, spinach and watercress may contain more potassium on a dry weight basis than tomato and Noni (if their unpublished analysis was correct). Asparagus, barley, beans, carrot, celery, coriander, swamp cabbage, wheat and dozens of other common foods are worse than orange as sources of potassium.” No one has suggested that lack of potassium labeling on these items is an example of the potential dangers of food.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported last week that dietary supplements may contain a variety of animal tissues “that could spread … bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)”, commonly known as mad cow disease. Reuters admitted however that so far no BSE has not yet been identified in the US, in spite of the fact that 60% of Americans are taking dietary supplements. The average American consumes 112.3 pounds of meat per year (1990), which is equivalent to 138 grams per day. The small amount of food supplements which contain animal products are usually manufactured by reputable companies in sterile facilities (one of which has been in business for over 30 years), and given at doses at approximately 1/10 of a gram per day. This 1/10 gram increases the estimated 0% risk by 1/1380 of 0%, which still equals 0% risk. In fact risk cannot be calculated until the first case is reported on US shores. The true risk may actually be less than 0%, due to the beneficial effects of many herbs on immune function. In addition the problems with mathematical calculations (see below), fear-mongering phytophobic hysterics also seem unable to differentiate between animal products and plant (herbal) products, in spite of give-away keywords on the labels such as “bovine source” or “pork thyroid.”
The current outbreak of hysterical phytophobia is believed by observers to have originated from a cumulative effect caused by press releases over the past year attacking DSHEA, the law which governs dietary supplements, and which removed some power from the FDA due to past abuses. In its later stages, hysterical phytophobia victims have been known to go on camera with eyes bulging and bodies gyrating while they repeat a litany of charges against herbal medicines, most of which have been discredited in the past, some of which stem back more than 10 years.
The disease also cause a form of selective amnesia/dementia, whereupon victims seem completely unaware of the thousands of safety studies and placebo-controlled studies clearly showing a high benefit to risk ratio for most herbs and supplements. They also seem unable to mathematically calculate the vast numerical difference between the thousands of victims of modern pharmaceutical medicine and the handful of victims of natural medicines. For example, the worst estimates of “dangerous herbs” estimates they may kill 50 Americans a year, while pharmaceuticals routinely kill 140,000 Americans a year (according to JAMA 1997), making herbs approximately 2,800 times safer than pharmaceuticals. Put another way, since one Americans dies from pharmaceuticals every three hours, at least two will expire during the average time spent writing an article attacking herbs.
There is currently no known cure for hysterical phytophobia. Some observers point out that there are rare remissions which seem to occur when physicians themselves are struck by severe illness, and forced to undergo toxic therapy in the cold, dehumanizing environment characteristic of modern medicine. Others note that the real victims are the American people, who in the future may find their freedom to obtain needed and sometimes life-saving nutritional supplements curtailed by the unrelenting pseudo-scientific attacks made by rabid phytophobic fear-mongers.