Traditional Chinese medicines contain some surprises

Many contain NSAIDs, anti-inflammatories and even banned products
traditional Chinese medicine

People who take traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) in the belief they are natural and safe may be shocked to discover some products are pumped up with steroids, hormones and banned diet drugs, according to toxicologists.

A review of 487 Chinese medicines suspected of adulteration found that rather than ancient herbal remedies, most contained modern, pharmaceutical-grade anorectics, stimulants and anti-inflammatories.

Toxicologists at Princess Margaret Hospital, Hong Kong, analysed proprietary medicines that had been implicated in adverse events, including 14 severe reactions and two deaths.

The banned slimming drug sibutramine was found in almost one-third of adulterated products, while other pharmaceuticals included corticosteroids (14%), diuretics (11%) and erectile dysfunction drugs (6%).

Other illicit ingredients included oral antidiabetic agents and animal thyroid tissue.

Worryingly, many of the analgesics and NSAIDs found in TCM products, such as phenacetin, had been withdrawn due to toxicity, the researchers noted.

The products analysed contained an average of 2.5 adulterants, but in one extreme case a pain reliever was found to contain 17 adulterants including corticosteroid and multiple NSAIDs.

“The increasing popularity of these proprietary Chinese medicines and health products may be attributed to the general belief that these products are natural and safe,” the authors wrote.

“Adulteration with banned drugs is hence a particularly dangerous practice and one that could lead to potentially fatal adverse events.”

More information:

British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 2017; online.