Dr. Duke gets the real dirt on drugs and herbs

The front page of the health section of the March 19th, 2000 Washington Post, read: "Mounting evidence suggests that increasing numbers of Americans are falling seriously ill or even dying after taking dietary supplements [...] The victims include men and women of all ages as well as children whose parents are feeding them snacks, drinks and nostrums made with herbal supplements that are neither regulated by the federal government nor tested for their effects on the young."

With such ominous articles appearing now regularly in the media, and with more and more people taking herbs, it makes sense to ask, "How does the harm done by herbs compare with harm done by other things?" Last year, several people called to ask me what I thought about another article in the Washington Post, "Health Concerns Grow Over Herbal Aids."

My immediate reaction: mostly nonsense and some truth. The nonsense is fertilizing fears among the lay public and driving them back into the waiting arms of the greedy "pharmaceuticalists." Two of my good friends were so alarmed by the negative press on herbs that they stopped herbs completely.

The growing health concerns from mass-media articles are being fertilized by trigger-happy journalists, pharmaceutical manufacturers and promoters, and physicians who know so little about herbs, many of them unfamiliar with the statistic from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that prescription drugs are killing 140,000 Americans a year. Herbs (usually through abuse or exceeding recommended dosage) are killing fewer than 100.

The elements of truth the Post article adduced apply mostly not to herbs, but synthetic supplements that never saw an herb. The Post article mentions ephedra, a Chinese herb, which can be used wisely and properly (in fact, various species have been used medicinally for thousands of years).

Reminding the readers that automobiles, which killed 41,826 people nationally in 1998, or diseases such as kidney disease, which killed 26,295, kill more people than herbs, the author of the Post article, in all fairness, should have included the other figures, the 40,000-100,000 killed by medical mistakes, the 98,000140,000 a year killed by prescription drugs in American hospitals and the 77,000-88,000 killed by hospital-caused nosocomial infections. Surely he was aware of these figures. If not, he should not have condemned the more salubrious herbal statistics without comparing the pharmaceutical death rate.

I'll do that for him today--honestly, not sensationally. Summary: regulated pharmaceuticals kill many more Americans than herbal medicine, a thousand fold more.

Then Guggliotta attempts to nail some of my herbal alternatives. St. John's wort is fast becoming a Prozac "competitor." Actually, St. John's wort is fast becoming a Zoloft competitor, and is being studied as such at Duke University. I predict that St. John's wort will prove to have fewer side effects than Zoloft. Kava is a more logical alternative to Prozac, less addictive and probably much safer.

Melatonin is a good remedy for jet lag with in my own experience. A supplement it is. An herb it ain't. Ginkgo biloba allegedly slows dementia. Conversely, Tacrine (Cognex), the first FDA-approved drug for Alzheimer's, helps about 25 percent of the patients for no more than two years, allegedly upsetting the livers of 25 percent of those patients.

Matter of fact, as Guggliotta says, senna, a natural purgative, was added to Ex-Lax last year to replace a a side-effect-associated synthetic chemical. I suppose Guggliotta's comments might have herbal people, frightened by his comments, abandoning the ephedra and rushing out to get Ex-Lax for weight-loss and exercise regimes. Most of the alternative practitioners discourage the use of any laxative, natural or synthetic, for protracted periods. Instead, we urge exercise and diet (at least five fruits and five vegetables).

Almost synchronous with Guggliotta's lambasting article, we read in newspapers that the White House is announcing a major effort to reverse the sharp increase in the number of preschool children using Ritalin, Prozac and other powerful psychiatric drugs. Perhaps Guggliotta would rather have his children on regulated addictive poisons than on safe but "unregulated" herbs. Not me.

Conclusion: physicians are approximately 9000 times more dangerous than guns.

And with my statistics above, pharmaceuticals are 1,000 times more dangerous than herbs. Instead of fighting the safer herbs, we should encourage support of clinical comparisons of the herbal and pharmaceutical alternatives.

killed by prescription pharmaceuticals a year

killed by nosocomial infections (getting tougher and tougher to control)


50,000 to 125,000
killed by colon cancer a year

Translation: the hospital is twice as likely to kill as colon cancer

Estimated People Taking Herbs: 100,000,000

People Killed by Herbs: 40

Again I think I have been conservative here. If we allow that high estimate of 100 deaths a year to herbs and supplements, that tells me that only one in a million people taking herbs is killed, and even Guggliotta's article admits that many of those are abusers. That tells me the pharmaceuticals on a per capitata basis are at least 1,000 times more liable to lead to a fatality. Last year I like another e-mail figure that crossed my desk last month, sent to me by a physician.

Number of physicians in the U.S. = 700,000

Accidental deaths caused by physicians/year = 120,000 Ratio: .171

Number of gun owners in US = 80,000,000

Number of accidental gun deaths/year = 1500 Ratio: .0000188


By James A. Duke, Ph.D.

Dr. James A. Duke has more than 30 years experience working with the healing power of plants--from the jungles of Latin America to a distinguished career as a chief ethnobotanist with the US Department of Agriculture. His knowledge and authority are undisputed in the world of herbal science and healing. Duke's pioneering work with the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) puts him in the forefront of those who are fighting to preserve the Amazonian world: people, plants and their collective wisdom.


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