Expert Opinions

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I'm a little nervous about taking Chinese herbs because I've heard that they can damage the liver or kidneys. Is this true?

R.L., via

Chinese herbs such as ginseng have been used safely for centuries without reports of liver, kidney, or other problems. However, warnings about specific herbs crop up from time to time. We reported on two, Mu Tong and Fangji, after a story in the medical journal Lancet (8/7/99) concluded they may have caused kidney damage in two women in the U.K.

In Chinese medicine, more than one plant species may have the same Chinese name. In that case, the herbs Aristolochia manshuriensis (Mu Tong) and Aristolochia fangchi (Fangji) were implicated. Other reports have linked these herbs to an earlier outbreak of kidney failure at a weight loss clinic in Belgium.

However, some experts believe that warnings about Mu Tong and Fangji and certain other Chinese herbs may be exaggerated. These same herbs have long been used in traditional Chinese remedies for ailments ranging from painful joints to swollen legs and inflammation with no ill effects. The problem may lie not in the herbs themselves but in their improper use.

"Most of the reported adverse events related to the use of Chinese herbs in the West occur either outside an environment where experienced practitioners are monitoring patient response, or within medical environments in which the doctors have inadequate experience or education in the use of Chinese herbal medicine," notes Doctor of Oriental Medicine and WHMD Advisor board member Efrem Korngold.

In some cases, people who take or prescribe Chinese herbs know little about proper use or appropriate dosage. (Years of training are required to become a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine.) It's also important to note that the women at the Belgian clinic received a cocktail of drugs in addition to the two Chinese herbs, which might have been a dangerous combination. Under the care of a trained professional, toxic reactions to commercially manufactured Chinese herbs are rare.

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