Health: Beware of wonder cures2011/09/12
Herbal supplements are not always beneficial to health. KASMIAH MUSTAPHA looks into the safety aspects of their use
WHEN it comes to herbal supplements, people are known to rely on hearsay rather than scientific proof of their efficacy. For instance, they believe that products with Tongkat Ali can increase the male libido, ginkgo will improve memory and black cohosh relieve menopausal symptoms.
Cashing in on these beliefs, some companies manufacture products which supposedly contain these herbs — such as Tongkat Ali coffee, juice and water.
In most cases, however, the products do not contain the herbal ingredients but drugs or other types of stimulants instead. While the consumer may not experience drastic reactions to the products immediately, in the long run, they can cause serious health problems.
The Health Ministry recently raided a company that was producing coffee mixed with the controlled drug tadalafil. The manufacturer claims the coffee contains herbal and organic extracts which boosts men’s sexual functions.
Tadalafil is an oral drug used to treat impotence. However, there are serious side effects if patients take it for long periods of time, without a doctor’s prescription. They may suffer from sudden loss of vision, chest pain spreading to the arm or shoulder, nausea, irregular heartbeat, swelling in hands, ankles, or feet, shortness of breath and seizures (convulsions).
Universiti Sains Malaysia School Of Medical Sciences deputy dean Assoc Prof Dr Shaiful Bahari Ismail says consumers have to make sure that the herbal supplements they are taking are genuine, backed by scientific evidence. “The study should show the products are safe and efficacious. They also must not contain any other unknown ingredient. It is best to talk to your doctor before taking any herbal supplement,” he advises.
Dr Shaiful, who is also a family physician, also advises patients to check the scientific background of the products and ensure the active ingredient is not combined with other potentially harmful ingredients.
“We have heard stories of herbal products combined with dangerous ingredients, such as sex stimulants. This can cause side effects and at times, death. So if a patient wants to take coffee that is said to contain Tongkat Ali or other herbs, I will ask the patient if there is a study done on the product. If there is none, I will tell him not to take it.
“Some of the products contain probably only 0.001 per cent of the herbal extract and the rest are drugs. Some contain a high dosage of drugs which can cause problems. Those with a good appetite and who take a balanced diet with good amounts of carbohydrate, proteins and minerals need not take any supplement, including herbals.”
Dr Shaiful and a team from Universiti Sains Malaysia conducted a study on the use of Tongkat Ali as a herbal supplement for the improvement of men’s sexual well-being. The study was sponsored by Biotropics Malaysia Bhd, manufacturer of Nu Prep, a herbal supplement with a Tongkat Ali water soluble extract.
The 109 men in the study were given the product and a placebo. The study found that there was improvement in sexual well-being, energy and physical functioning after being on the product for 12 weeks.
“I cannot claim that there has been no scientific study on Tongkat Ali before but the study that I conducted using water extract Tongkat Ali is among the first in the country that looks at men’s quality of life and sexual well-being.
“Based on the 12-week period, we can say that it is safe to use the product for a short term, but we cannot be certain of the same effect if people use it for longer than that.”
Tongkat Ali or Eurycoma longifolia is a plant famous for its male aphrodisiac properties. However, it is also used for treatment of aches, persistent fever, malaria, dysentery, glandular swelling, bleeding (as a coagulant), edema, hypertension, syphilitic sores, and ulcers.
Biotropics director of business development, sales and marketing Siti Nooruhani Ibrahim says the study was commissioned mainly to confirm and ensure the product is safe.
“We need scientific proof that Nu Prep is safe and effective. We cannot just tell consumers without having the proof to support our claims. We know for centuries that people have been using Tongkat Ali because of its health propensities. So we wanted to put the science in the traditional practice.
“Our products are manufactured using the latest technology to ensure they are safe and follow standards. We will continue to do scientific studies on our products to back our claims of their effects. This will keep us ahead of our competitors.”
She says Nu Prep, which has been in the market for five years, is also distributed to United States and Hong Kong. Nu Prep Tongkat Ali freeze-dried extract is powdered and encapsulated to ensure the biologically active components’ therapeutic values are maintained. The company also produces other herbal products including Nu Femme Kacip Fatimah.
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