For Allergy and Asthma, Herbs Can Help and Harm
March 7, 2000 (San Diego) -- Once scoffed at by doctors and mainstream
scientists, alternative medicines may actually have benefits that can be
demonstrated in valid laboratory experiments, according to data presented at a
conference of allergy and asthma experts here. However, other studies presented
here reveal dangerous side effects of these products.
"Given the [reputation for effectiveness], low cost, and relative
absence of side effects, the use of traditional Chinese medicines has been
growing in Western countries in the past few years," says Xiu-Min Li, MD,
of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. However, she says, not much
data exist to confirm or refute the claims that have been made for Chinese
To study the effects of these herbal remedies on asthma, Li and colleagues
at Mount Sinai and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in
Baltimore developed a mixture, referred to as MTSD, based on a popular Chinese
remedy. Their formula was slightly modified from the normal preparation. They
tested the formula in mice with asthma and compared it with another Chinese
medicine, ding-chan tang (DCT), and to dexamethasone, a potent steroid drug
sometimes used in the treatment of asthma.
MTSD proved as effective as dexamethasone at reducing the lung's extreme
sensitivity to substances that provoked asthma attacks in the mice. DCT also
had some effect, but not as much as the other two. MTSD also significantly
reduced lung inflammation and mucus accumulation, which, says Li, can make a
severe asthma attack fatal.
She and her colleagues also found that while dexamethasone suppressed the
immune system, MTSD had a better, more selective effect. "Our results
suggest that [MTSD] may have some therapeutic effect in the treatment of
allergic asthma," she says. "This herbal formula may be a good
But alternative remedies must be taken with caution, warns Raymond J.
Mullins, MB, of the John James Medical Centre in Deakin, Australia. He says
people with allergies could have serious, even fatal reactions to
After two of his patients suffered severe allergic and asthma attacks within
20 minutes of taking echinacea products, Mullins reviewed a database on adverse
drug reactions reported by Australia's doctors and pharmacists. During the
1990s, the database received over 400 reports of herbal products, including 44
involving echinacea. More than half of those cases were allergic reactions,
most in patients known to be allergic to other substances. Symptoms included
hives, swelling, and shock. Four patients required hospitalization.
Echinacea is a flowering plant related
to the daisy and ragweed, Mullins says. It might provoke asthma or an allergic
reaction in people who are allergic to components common to all of those
plants. Echinacea's popularity Down Under has exploded in recent years, due to
reports that "it may stimulate white blood cells to gobble up germs more
effectively." Mullins warns that such claims are based on statements taken
out of context from scientific papers.
Nevertheless, Australians take an
estimated 200 million doses of it annually. Reactions to echinacea account for
more than 10% of the adverse reports involving alternative medicine in
Australia. But this could be an underestimate, says Mullins, because "minor
reactions such as transient rashes or worsening of underlying asthma are likely
to go unnoticed and unreported."
"We need to challenge the concept
that natural means safe," he says. "Herbal medicines have not been
examined carefully for risks. If you have allergies, including asthma, eczema,
and hay fever, I recommend that you don't take echinacea at