Snake Oil

Confirming safety in herbal medications

Picture the old western snake-oil salesman who peddled quack miracle concoctions out of the back of a covered wagon. The wagon is gone now, but there are still plenty of reasons for consumers to be careful when purchasing medicine or any other product they ingest.

Demand for over-the-counter herbal remedies and the like exists among many segments of the American population. In fact, at least three percent of English-speaking adults in the United States use medicinal herbs of one form or another, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Potential for profit in this business is great, but so are the risks of toxicity for users of some remedies, or the lack of real benefits for others.

That's where Colorado State University chemistry professor Frank Stermitz steps in. He's spent much of his professional career sorting the safe from the dangerous, and the useful from the useless. Stermitz, whose research is funded in part by the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station, works in a science called phytochemistry, or the study of chemicals derived from plants.

The Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver contacted Stermitz in 1993 to analyze an imported Chinese herb called Jin Bu Huan, often sold as tablets for relief of insomnia, pain, and spasm. The center reported three accidental overdose ingestions of the herb by children who suffered neurologic and cardiovascular problems as a result. About the same time, three adults experienced hepatitis associated with sustained ingestion of recommended doses of Jin Bu Huan.

Analysis of the remedy by Stermitz and graduate student John Beck revealed high levels of a toxic chemical it wasn't supposed to have, and none of a primary plant derivative that was listed on the label. These findings led the Food and Drug Administration in 1993 to ban importation of Jin Bu Huan herbal tablets into the United States.

Another interesting case involved Oshá, a medicinal herb widely used in the American southwest. Oshá is derived from the rhizome or underground stem of a plant with the botanical name Porteri that grows wild in western mountains. Hispanic and Native American populations of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico have for many years used the herb as a remedy for colds and flu.

Because the molecular structure of a major component of the herb suggested it could be toxic, Stermitz was asked to investigate. He found no evidence of toxicity. In fact, he confirmed the existence of minor antimicrobial and moderately potent antiviral activity Oshá was purported to have, thus legitimizing some of the folklore claims for its ability to ward off colds and flu. The herb is now being cultivated by CAES researchers in southwestern Colorado.

Not all of Stermitz's research deals with human problems. In 1995, he heard reports that common field bindweed could be toxic to animals. Working with Dr. Anthony Knight of Colorado State's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Stermitz determined that a group of horses consuming bindweed in a pasture near Thornton, Colorado, was indeed being poisoned by toxic compounds produced by the weed. This was the first demonstration that this worldwide problem weed also was toxic.

"The basics of chemistry and chemical analysis can be pretty cold, routine stuff," says Stermitz. "But seeing what I do and knowing that it makes life better for people not only in Colorado but throughout the world is very satisfying and rewarding".