Arsenic poisoning from kelp supplements

From a news release by the University of California at Davis:

The new study, published in this month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives - available online at - was prompted by the case of a 54-year-old woman who was seen at the UCD Occupational Medicine Clinic following a two-year history of worsening hair loss, fatigue and memory loss.

Seafood is our primary source of arsenic in the food supply and we all have detectable arsenic in our blood after a plate of oysters. But this case was particularly disturbing:

Over a period of several months, the woman's short- and long-term memory became so impaired that she could no longer remember her home address. She also reported having a rash, nausea and vomiting, which made it very difficult to work and forced her to leave a full-time job. The woman actually increased her dosage of kelp from two to four pills a day after her doctors still could not find a clear diagnosis.

This quote gets my award for the most succinct description of what is wrong with herbal regulation in the US:

"Part of the problem," Schenker said, "is that the FDA has limited control over dietary supplements. It can't scrutinize products like herbal kelp before they enter the market, so it has to rely on adverse reports to determine product safety."

Nowhere in the press release is it said exactly why the woman was taking kelp supplements other than to promote "vital living and well-being."

Can anyone from the herbal industry tell me what is so overbearing about requiring a simple heavy metal analysis of one's product before it is marketed?

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Everything taken by mouth is a food, a drink, or a drug. Except to this Administration, which gives a pass on everything as a default decision. Since the problem is top-down, there cannot be a fix that isn't top-down.

As a trained medical herbalist I feel all herbal supplements should be tested for heavy metals and active constituents. I have been frustrated many times by the fact that some products produce results and others do not. I have clients that try to self medicate with other products other than the original I have used to resolve their health issues; only to have them relapse because they have used a product that was available at the grocery store and they assume it will produce the same results. The use of herbal therapeutics will never be validated unless there is an effort on the part of all governments to include those who have some knowledge of botanical medicine.

By Nancy Winlove-Smith (not verified) on 07 Apr 2007 #permalink

@Nancy Winlove-Smith

Since there is no (reliable) medical evidence for the use of herbs- how were you trained? If there is any good evidence for an herb, we will call it medicine. The poorly controlled and, otherwise trivial, studies don't give any confidence. "Herbologists" make thousands of claims that are unsupported by reliable evidence.

I only ask for valid evidence of safety and efficacy. I submit that it does not exist for any "herbal treatment;" so far, I have not met a counterargument (that does not concern real medicine).

I submit that your herbology is entirely based on anecdote and wishful thinking based on inferior studies. Show me where I am wrong.

Abel, a while back I questioned some research, and you said they actually have some results in model studies. Of course, you know as well as I that the proper procedure is to isolate the active compound and study it. If I may wax philosophical, then it is pharmacology and not herbalism.

You recently noted that 70% of drugs are based on natural products. I know a bit about the chemistry of natural products. My question is- how many are being used for the purposes suggested by the shamans? In a recent article by W. Sampson (JAMA, 7/28/05 337-9), he points out that the ethnobotanic use for echinacea was not the "cold."

Joe, Nancy seems to have trained in a medical herbalism program at Canada's McMaster University, so I'll be very interested if she returns to tell us about the basis of her curriculum; it sounds far more science-based than any correspondence program.

You have a good question about whether the ethnobotanic uses of herbs are common to today's purported indications. I read Sampson's point about Echinacea but will have to get back to you.

APB wrote: Joe, Nancy seems to have trained in a medical herbalism program at Canada's McMaster University, so I'll be very interested if she returns to tell us about the basis of her curriculum; it sounds far more science-based than any correspondence program.

How can it be science-based when there is no science behind it? I have repeatedly asked for the science; and you have dodged the issue. I know there is no science behind herbalism. If any herb has certified medicinal properties- it will be called medicine. Of all the thousands of herbal claims- where is the medicine? There is none, it is lost in anecdote and inadequate studies.

In 1974 I started as a pharmaceutical chemist (not a pharmacist); then I got my PhD in organic chemistry, and was a post-doc in rational drug design (enzyme inhibitors). I know this territory. I cannot understand how you can accept mere folklore (and the magical thinking that is naturopathy).

Nancy may have trained at McMaster. There are accredited schools of chiropractic, naturopathy and astrology. Wake up.

I'll be the first to admit that the science is sparse, but it is not non-existent as you purport. Peppermint oil for irritable bowel syndrome is one of a few documented uses of herbal preparations for mild to moderate illnesses. There is also a fascinating traditional Chinese medicine prep for experimental lung tumors that is deserving of fractionation and identification of active principles. I agree that herbalism and naturopathy practices do often lack scientific support and are sometimes dangerous, but I am unprepared to say that they are based in mere folklore.

I try to look at things on a case-by-case basis and my posts more often than not do criticize alternative medicine practices. However, I started the blog to shed light on the few cases where scientific evidence does exist for the use (or at least the further investigation) of remedies that may be used by herbalists or naturopaths.

I am well-aware of your training, background, and more senior experience to my own. You may wish for me to offer blanket pronouncements decrying anything that is not "medicine" and we do, in fact, agree that alternative therapies that have promise should be tested and if they work, be incorporated as "medicine." I am castigated by you as being too accepting and, in other circles, I am castigated as being a "paid hitman for Pharma." So, I feel that I am striking the right balance for me and my mission for the blog.

But, Joe, if you don't like what I do here, you are always free to start your own blog - I'd be happy to link to you.

I apologize. I looked here before e-mailing to invite you to delete my previous, overly-snarky post. It went beyond my usual terse presentation that many people also construe as attack. We do agree on many things, and I often post links to your site on various forums.

As for being paid to be a Pharma hitman where do I sign up?

I am writing to respond to my training. I do not claim to have a PhD, but I have studied within the Medical facilities at McMaster Health Science in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. My medical instruction was provided by a billiant German vascular surgeon who was teaching second year med students at the time while awaiting certification in Canada for his MD status. In Europe it is not unusual for doctors to prescribe meds and botanical tinctures concurrently. My instructor was under the illusion that North America was on the verge of enlightenment and made every resource available he could to give us "medical" training. I was taught differential diagnosis, had access to the anatomy lab (real body parts) and was tested using simulated "live" patients. Botanicals were discussed on an "evidence based" criteria and I spent many hours in the medical library doing research for presentations. My most valuable education however has been the investigative research I have done on behalf of clients who have had long standing medical issues that have not been resolved by pharmaceutical drugs. I have a client who had been on and off drugs for two years for "restless leg syndrome" After a thorough history taking I made a "herbal" suggestion. Resolution of the symptoms was achieved within two months. The client did however switch products and her neurological symptoms reappeared. Upon switching back to the original product the client's symptoms resolved again. This is not a "controlled study" however I doubt my client cares. I have several clients who have been "medicated" for years and now medicate with botanicals will far greater satisfaction. True botanical medicines work synergistically (just like vitamin A C and E) and isolates do not produce the same results. Isolates can collect in body tissues when fat soluble increasing the risk of side effects. I have studied ten years and my educational credits amounted to over 3000 hours of study, not exactly a correspondence course. To be a herbalist you sign up for all the humilation the science community can throw at you. I don't spend all my time justifying myself...I have achieved success through my clients and that science cannot take away. I am not impressed by clinical many are flawed and I have studied enough to know. Testing proves nothing...compliance is always questionable..if you have worked with individuals taking drugs for clinical trial you would know. For those who are afraid to act without the comfort of mass testing, drugs will always be preferred. I will continue down the road of common sense and know that everyone is an individual and the treatment depends on the one who has enough insight to think for himself.

By Nancy Winlove-Smith (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink