Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Loco About Herbs

The latest issue of hoofbeats is as full of woo as ever ("Natural Organic Minerals for Horses"; herbal tranquilisers - which only require application for three months before they work, but are "permanent", and which require you to determine your horse's 'type' ie does he "hold all his anxiety and tension in his muscles" or does he "process it through his digestive system" etc etc; lots of apparently undeclared advertorials; and so on) but EoR wants to look at its "Growing Equine Herbs" column. Interestingly, this is a couple of pages after the "Weed Watch" column, and EoR wonders in passing what criteria are used to determine in which column to put individual plants. Maybe they take it turn about?

[Astragalus] dates back to about 200BC and its warming properties have been used as an energy tonic to improve the immune system, physical endurance and to encourage the body to balance its systems.

Which really is all pretty meaningless woo-speak. "Energy" tonic? Would that be microwave energy? Nuclear energy? No, it's qi energy. Or Universal Life Force energy. Or Homeopathic Water Memory energy. Or something else equally nebulous, indeterminate, unmeasurable and impossible. Since all altie therapies "improve the immune system" and "balance the body's systems" (homeostasis is such a fickle mechanism when left to itself) EoR wonders why there are still any creatures left with under-functioning immune systems or out of balance body systems.

Having got the woo out of the way, readers can feel all touchy-feely about the real science that proves all the foregoing misinformation.

There have been studies confirming Astragalus' benefits to the immune system, especially in cancer patients where it helps with the restoration of immune cells after chemotherapy. Other studies have shown benefits to the liver and heart.

The myriad uses continue:

An antioxidant, its support in anti-ageing, as a diuretic, tonic for the lungs, spleen and kidneys. It has been used for oedema, uterine prolapses, uterine bleeding and wound healing. It promotes metabolism of proteins, stimulates the pituitary-adrenal cortisol activity and restoration of depleted red blood cell formation in the bone marrow.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center

In the United States, astragalus has been investigated as a possible treatment for patients whose immune systems have been compromised by chemotherapy or radiation. Astragalus supplements have been shown to speed recovery and extend life expectancy in these patients. Research regarding the use of astragalus in people with AIDS has produced intriguing but inconclusive results.

Recent research in China indicates that astragalus may offer antioxidant benefits in people with severe forms of heart disease, relieving symptoms and improving heart function. Because astragalus has many potential applications and few, if any, side effects, it holds promise as an alternative treatment option.

Notice how the hoofbeats article takes research that states Astragalus is a "possible treatment... intriguing but inconclusive... may offer..." and takes away all shadow of doubt to claim it as a known miracle treatment for a vast range of symptoms, diseases and conditions. EoR also wonders how many horses have undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

InteliHealth is even more cautionary in describing the scientific studies.

Better studies are needed in this area before firm conclusions can be reached [cancer]... Further research is needed in this area [immune system stimulant]... However, larger studies are needed to determine the exact benefit and safety of astragalus for these conditions [cardiovascular disease]... Larger, better-quality studies are needed to provide clear answers [myocarditis and endocarditis]... More research is needed in these areas before a recommendation can be made [other].

The list of unproven uses is much, much longer. InteliHealth also goes on to list possible side effects and interactions with other drugs or supplements (in a herbal supplement! the horror!). Strangely, animal studies indicate Astragalus may lower blood pressure, even though "traditional" wisdom has it that the herb raises blood pressure. InteliHealth concludes:

Although astragalus has been suggested for many uses, it has not been scientifically proven for the treatment of any condition. It is often used as a part of multiherb combination therapies. Astragalus has not been shown safe for pregnant or breast-feeding women. Individuals with autoimmune diseases or organ transplants should consult a health care professional before taking astragalus. If you are taking drugs, other herbs or supplements, consult a pharmacist or health care professional before starting therapy. Consult a health care professional immediately if you experience side effects.

MedlinePlus points out the poor quality of studies of Astragalus.

The use of astragalus became popular in the 1980s based on theories about anti-cancer properties, although these proposed effects have not been clearly demonstrated in reliable human studies. Some medicinal uses of astragalus are based on its proposed immune stimulatory properties, reported in preliminary laboratory and animal experiments, but not conclusively demonstrated in humans. Most astragalus research has been conducted in China, and has not been well designed or reported.

So, an apparently reputable magazine (though its reputation is fast declining) promotes a herb as proven, safe and efficacious, when it is none of those. Certainly, further studies may indeed indicate some positive uses of Astragalus, but that evidence does not currently exist, and to blatantly claim so without any provisos is fraudulent and deceptive. Of course, it may just be because the author of the column was, herself, imbibing Astragalus or, to give it a more common name, locoweed. This use of it in animals, as a poison, is certainly well documented.

The third type of poisoning and probably the most severe, called "locoweed poisoning" or "locoism", is caused by several species of Astragalus and a few species of Oxytropis which synthesize the alkaloid swainsonine.

Hoofbeats. Going loco about herbs.

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