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I'm sorry, herbal medicine, oh, "herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years", and indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became "medicine". And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourself out.
One of the staples of late night advertising is the host of herbal remedies claiming to cure all known human ills. Having trouble shedding that last 10 pounds? There's an herbal pill for it. Can't concentrate or focus like you used to? We have magic plants for that, too. Sex life not what it used to be? There's a whole forest of herbs for that one. (And with that much wood, how can you go wrong?)
These herbal cures are always packaged similar to modern pharmaceuticals, using plastic bottles or sheets containing pills or capsules. However, none of them have undergone any FDA scrutiny since they don't claim to treat a disease (not even normal food safety requirements), as their disclaimers would tell you if you could read them. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't work, but it means that we cannot be certain that they do; and even if they do, there is also no guarantee of consistency, since plants vary widely in their potency. Testing by consumer protection agencies in several countries has shown that potency of herbal remedies can vary between non-existent to potentially harmful, even between different batches from the same manufacturer; and contamination with harmful substances such as heavy metals and pesticides is a frequent occurrence and the actual levels of the purported active ingredient might even vary.
Equally important, there are often no warnings of potentially harmful side-effects, or interactions with prescription drugs, foods, or even other herbal pills; even when there really ought to be.
In the U.S., a recent law has forced advertisements of such herbal remedies, which are not run through the Food and Drug Administration, to say as much at the end of their ads. Thus, you'll hear or see the following: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease." Which basically translates into "We just lied through our teeth" if the whole point of the ad was to imply that the remedy did "diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure" a specific disease.
- An episode of House from the first season dealt with this. He had to prove that it wasn't his failure to keep good records that caused a nun to react unexpectedly to an allergy shot. After about forty minutes televised time, he figured out that the figwort tea she drank all the time caused that particular problem; figwort acted like a stimulant.
- In King of the Hill, Hank reacts to herbal tea as if it was a form of illegal drug by calling it "dope".
- An episode of Law and Order deals with a doctor selling one of these as a breast cancer cure, with the result that one of her patients dies from complications of the disease.
- An episode of Perfect Strangers had Balki mentioning The Midolcrampabloatalis root that grows on the summit of Mt. PMSkalos" as a cure for something that ailed Larry.
- In New Tricks, Defective Detective Brian Lane switches from the powerful anti-depressants he normally uses to combat his OCD and paranoid manic depression to a holistic regime... and quickly becomes an unstable, nervous and paranoid wreck who's no good at his job. In her defense, the holistic practitioner he consults urges him to consult his medical doctor before making any shift in his medication or including her holistic treatments in his routine; Brian simply chooses not to listen.
- Futurama episode "Fry and the Slurm Factory", when Bender complains about feeling sick:
Amy: You should try homeopathic medicine, Bender. Try some zinc.
Bender: I'm forty percent zinc.
Amy: Then take some echinacea, or St. John's wort.
Professor Farnsworth: Or a big, fat placebo. It's all the same crap!
- Metabolite, and everything else that contained ephedrine. After synthetic versions of the weight-loss chemical were banned due to violent side effects, people just switched to ephedra, a plant that produces ephedrine naturally. Will people ever learn?
- The main active ingredient in the weight-loss supplement Hydroxycut is a form of nicotine derived from hemlock. The FDA also recently issued a warning about Hydroxycut causing liver damage; it has since been pulled from store shelves.
- Airborne was advertised as a vitamin and herb supplement that helped prevent or shorten colds. The creators were eventually sued, but production was not shut down. One lawsuit was over the fact that, when used as directed by the packaging, it could provide potentially toxic overdoses of Vitamin A. The product had to be reformulated to prevent such an overdose in order to remain on the market, and later lawsuits dealt with Airborn committing fraud. The product in the past was advertised as being scientifically tested. However, the testing was done by a company created by the makers of Airborne, and the "company" consisted of only two men, with no laboratories, clinics, scientists or doctors qualified to perform such a study.
- Not yet a trope, but it seems that every month or two someone tests some herbal treatment, and discovers that the manufacturer is slipping in ground up Viagra or blood pressure medicine or some other prescription medicine appropriate to the condition. Not that they're mentioning that little fact on the label, opening people to surprise drug interactions and overdoses.
- The consumer's lucky if it is Viagra or blood pressure medicine. Many herbal medicines contain drugs that were banned in the West years ago after they were discovered to be unsafe. Others contain veterinary drugs that aren't safe for human use - one recent example contained an antibiotic used to treat horses which in humans could be lethal.
- The "colon cleanser" products often advertised on talk radio or spam mail fall into this trope, too; one product contains things like inulin, psyllium and guar gum (safe, effective fiber laxatives that are available much more cheaply at the local drugstore), but also senna, aloe vera and cascara (sources of anthraquinones, powerful stimulant laxatives that shouldn't ever be used for more than a week at a time.)
- Many people use natural MAOI-containing herbs such as Passionflower to treat their depression. What many of them don't realize is that if they take these herbs while or even 2 weeks before taking an SSRI-based substance (most prescription antidepressants), or eating certain foods you can basically overdose on your own serotonin and get very sick, or even die. Similarly, St. John's Wort contains SR Is similar to anit-depressants such as Prozac. Taking multiple SRI/SSRI/SNRI type drugs can cause serious and potentially fatal complications. Combining MAO inhibitors with SR Is, or with any number of different types of foods, can also cause serious and potentially fatal complications. St. John's wort is also known to interact badly with certain heart medications; and can greatly reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.
- Warfarin, which was actually invented to be a rat poison, is a prescription drug used to treat many heart and circulation problems, is known to have potentially harmful interactions with over 200 herbal medicines, including ginseng, dong quai, feverfew, gingko, alfalfa, chamomile, and St. John's wort.
- Echinacea, commonly used to treat colds and other mild viral infections; is known to react badly with heart and anti-anxiety medications.
- Licorice root, often used in large doses to treat stomach problems, is known to cause high blood pressure.
- Kava is a particularly irritating example in that it may actually work--according to Time Magazine, a study in Germany concluded that the roots have a mild antidepressant effect, like natural Prozac. The leaves and stems, however, are suspected to cause long-term liver damage. Manufacturers who sell it in America have little incentive to make certain no leaves or stems get mixed in with the roots. It does help that most people consuming it aren't doing it for any medicinal purpose: they're using it as a substitute for alcohol (for whatever reason), as the stuff is definitely an intoxicant.
- Many plants contain various amount of phytoestrogens, which are compounds that behave like estrogen in the body. Whether or not phytoestrogens have any real health benefits for adult women is uncertain, but some people claim (or strongly imply) that phytoestrogens are better for you than the estrogen your own body makes because it comes from plants. Whut?
- Valerian, often bought on its own and in conjunction with other herbs as a natural insomnia remedy, does work to help you sleep... and it also brings on depression in people with Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar and possibly even in people who were not previously ill. Especially bad as a common symptom of any of the above conditions (and a common side effect of antidepressants, which people with those conditions are likely to be on) is insomnia.
- During the SARS outbreak, internet chain letters claimed things such as Vitamin C, Belladonna, and Colloidal Silver would cure it. Vitamin C is fairly tame, but Belladonna is a poisonous plant and Colloidal Silver will permanently turn your skin blue.
- Must be noted that colloidal silver has demonstrated antimicrobial properties in laboratory testing. Silver itself is antimicrobial and sufficiently small or properly arranged silver particles have increased effect, which is why they are used in coatings. Ingested silver hasn't been sufficiently tested to determine if it has the same properties in the body but toxicity has no known harmful side effects aside from the blue (actually closer to grey) pigmentation.