There is no good evidence to suggest that individually tailored herbal medicine treatment works well, suggests a new study.
Studies promoting the effectiveness of herbal medicines have been steadily increasing over the past 20 years, say the authors. But most clinical research has involved standard preparations or single herbal extracts rather than the individually tailored treatments favoured by herbal medicine practitioners.
This suggests that they have been sponsored by manufacturers, eager to cash in on the growing market for over the counter remedies, say the authors.
The current findings are based on an analysis of the available comparative clinical research (randomised controlled trials) on individually tailored herbal medicine treatments.
The authors trawled published articles and research databases, as well as contacting experts in the field and associated professional bodies.
But only three studies out of more than 1300 were randomised controlled trials of sufficient quality to draw meaningful conclusions.
These studies covered the treatment of knee osteoarthritis and irritable bowel syndrome, and the relief of side effects caused by drug treatment for cancer.
There were no statistical differences between tailored herbal medicine and placebo in either the knee osteoarthritis study or the cancer treatment study, say the authors.
Tailored herbal medicine treatments did seem to work better than inactive (placebo) treatment in irritable bowel syndrome, but they were not as good as standard preparations.
“…There is no convincing evidence that [individualised herbal medicine] is effective in any indication,” conclude the authors. And there is a high risk of side effects and the potential for herbs to react badly with other herbs and prescription medicines, they add.
In an accompanying editorial, Professor Edzard Ernst, of the Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter, warns that the public is in danger of branding all herbal medicine the same.
Phytotherapy, which represents the scientific face of herbalism, is being confused wth traditional herbal medicine and over the counter remedies, which currently have no basis in science, he says.
Phytotherapy has considerable potential to benefit patients. But over the counter remedies and traditional herbal medicine can harm those who use them.
“Without these distinctions, we will fail to advance our knowledge of the potential benefits of herbal treatments. More importantly, we will also fail in our foremost duty – to protect the public from treatments that cause them harm,” he concludes.
This research, authored by R Guo, P H Canter, E Ernst of the Universities of Exeter & Plymouth, is published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal.
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