Is Fang Chi Dangerous For Your Health?

The hopes of many that herbal medicine might provide straightforward complementary cures are increasingly being dashed. In 2011, the European Union announced it was banning a wide range of herbal medicines, and bad news continues to arrive regarding troubling results of research into various medicines. A prime example of the controversies that have appeared over this issue is that of aristolochic acid, a compound found in the traditional Chinese herb fang chi, among other supplements. It is now known to cause cancer and kidney failure and has suffered a near world-wide ban as a result.


Fang chi was originally used as an anti-inflammatory, with special application to arthritic conditions. As such, it has been included in a variety of dietary supplements and herbal medicines. It is even suspected that it is still present in some cheap supplements available over the internet. Graham Lord, a nephrologist at King’s College London presided over the first case of kidney failure from aristolochic acid, and has warned that it is a potential catastrophe on a global scale. He suspects there could be tens of thousands of people affected by contact with aristolochic acid.


Fear and confusion over the issue was recently aggravated even more, due to controversial research results from Taiwan. A small study undertaken there seems to indicate that it is not just consumers of aristolochic acid who are at risk, but also the professional herbalists who handled it. The study suggested that a peak in urinary cancer among Taiwanese herbalists is due to their contact with fang chi before the ban in 2003. The study claimed that herbalists who packed or sold fang chi had 2.6 times the chance of urinary cancer than those who didn’t. A great deal of argument ensued, as the herbalists surveyed were thought likely to have been ingesting herbs containing aristolochic acid too. Therefore, it is probably impossible to judge whether external contact with the drug can actually cause urinary cancer.


It seems likely that the research on aristolochic acid was politically motivated. Many have complained that the Chinese government has been slow to act in ensuring a total ban on this compound. It is even thought that supplements containing this ingredient are still being manufactured for sale online. Many medical practitioners are desperate that the health warnings about it do not fade into the background.


While we should be wary about the over-hyping of horror stories in the media, it is advisable to be prudent about the use of any medicine. Just because a medicine is described as ‘herbal’ in no way ensures that it is free of side effects. Those of us seeking herbal supplements are usually dedicated to our wellbeing. Therefore, there is no reason to risk our wellness by not doing the maximum amount of research before taking any drug, whether herbal or pharmaceutical. In every case, we should choose our supplements under the guidance of a qualified professional.

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