October 07, 2007

Tailored herbal medicines under the scanner in UK

Scientists in Britain are warning that there is no evidence to suggest herbal medicines "tailored" to the individual do actually work; they also say such concoctions may even be harmful.

According to a study by a team from the Peninsula Medical School, a partnership between Exeter and Plymouth universities and the National Health Service in Devon and Cornwall, they found no convincing evidence that suggested herbal medicines "tailored" to the individual are effective.

The team arrived at this conclusion after a wide search for randomised clinical trials of tailored treatments across the world, in any language; they looked at 1,300 published articles on the subject and analysed the only three randomised clinical trials in existence.

They also contacted 15 professional bodies but were still only able to find the three trials. The team are also dubious as to the skills of practitioners in Britain who offer treatments specially formulated for individuals.

Practitioners generally offer a wide variety of treatments for conditions ranging from minor skin ailments to cancer, using a multitude of herbs, drawn from different cultures. Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herbal medicine, have all become increasingly popular over the past 20 years where practitioners mix different combinations of plant extracts to treat ailments such as asthma and arthritis.

The team say while there were many herbs which have health benefits, studies on these tend to involve standard preparations or single herb extracts.

The researchers say herbs may be contaminated or even toxic, and their strength misunderstood by the practitioner and there are many issues regarding expertise such as a practitioner being able to make a proper judgement and knowing when a client is displaying symptoms that really should be assessed by a doctor.

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists says it is impossible to draw conclusions from three small studies with "questionable methodology", and herbalists often found themselves unable to obtain the funding necessary to carry out rigorous trials. They say people often resort to herbalists having tried the orthodox approach with no success.

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