Health institute warns against using three herbal supplements

Tabernanthe iboga growing in the wild. Photo: Konda ku Mbuta Flickr

The public health institute RIVM has warned against the use of dietary supplements or tea containing three specific plants which, it says, can cause severe health problems, including death.

The three – Huperzia serrata, Tabernanthe iboga and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – are available in high street stores and online and marketed as aids for stress, brain function and addiction.

Little scientific research has been done on the harmful effects of Ashwagandha, which is said to reduce stress, but doctors both from the Netherlands and other countries have reported several cases of poisoning and harmful effects on the liver, The RIVM said.

In some countries, such as China and India, Ashwagandha was used in the past to induce abortion, among other things, the RIVM report stated.

People using Huperzia serrata, a fir moss which comes from Asia and is said to improve brain function, may experience symptoms such as muscle weakness, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, increased saliva production, blurred vision, watery eyes and paralysis.

There is also evidence that this herb is harmful to unborn children, the RIVM reported. The plant is used in Chinese medicine.

Scientific research has shown that Tabernanthe iboga, an evergreen rainforest shrub found across central Africa and used in local medicine, can cause arrhythmia and dozens of deaths have been reported worldwide, including “a few” cases in the Netherlands, the RIVM said. Other side effects include nausea, acute psychosis, seizures and hallucinations.

All three supplements should be avoided because they can lead to problems, even when used according to the instructions on the packaging, the RIVM said.

The risk assessment was carried out on behalf of the health ministry and reports on three other dietary supplements will be following the spring.

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