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11:55 PM December 4th, 2011

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By: Neal H. Cruz, December 4th, 2011 11:55 PM

Here’s good news for those who like to take herbal medicines, instead of the regular medicines, for their ailments, thinking it is cheaper. Herbals are now a P4-billion industry. Why not? It consists of putting a few leaves in a teabag, or grinding the leaves into powder and putting it in a capsule, or add a binder and make tablets and then putting the result in a beautiful package and selling them.  These are not medicines with curative values, mind you, but classified as “food supplements,” which is why they escape the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“No therapeutic claims.” The law mandates that each package of herbals contain this warning, meaning that the product does not claim to cure any disease. But how many Filipinos know what “No therapeutic claims” means? And on the contrary, herbal manufacturers do make those claims in their advertisements and commercials, with celebrities endorsing (for a fee, of course) some of the products. The herbal companies actually spend more for their advertisements and commercials than for the herbal medicine itself.

And the herbals are packaged like regular medicine—in pill, tablet, capsule or syrup form. And they are sold in drugstores at almost the same prices as regular medicines.

The diseases that the herbals claim to cure range from the very common to the most deadly. They range from the common cold to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, liver and intestinal diseases. They even claim to improve eyesight. Name the disease, they have an antidote for it.

Almost every day, a new herbal hits the market. The companies probably spend more time concocting names for their new products than doing research to find out the efficacy of their products.

Of course, there are plants that do have medicinal properties. In fact, many of the regular medicines are extracted from plants. And every year, new species with medicinal properties are being discovered.

But extracting the medicinal ingredient from plants and making it into regular medicine are different from packaging the leaves and selling them as medicine. And aside from its medicinal ingredients, a plant might contain other ingredients that are harmful.

For example, the mahogany seed became a fad sometime ago as an anti-hypertensive. So thousands of Filipinos were chewing mahogany seeds instead of taking regular medicines against high-blood pressure, although there are so many of the latter in the market that they are now very inexpensive. It turned out that mahogany seeds are also toxic and some of those taking them died. A friend-journalist of mine, of all people, was one of those who died from chewing mahogany seeds.

A sister-in-law of mine was having chemotherapy for cancer when a friend of hers suggested that she take herbals as they had been good for her. So she stopped her chemotherapy and switched to herbals.  Both she and her friend died soon after.

The Department of Health, particularly the FDA, has been negligent in its duties in not guiding and advising the public about herbals. The FDA claims that herbals are not within its jurisdiction since they are not medicines but food supplements. The advertising industry has also been remiss in its duties by not warning the herbal companies about their false advertising. Not one of the herbals being marketed has undergone the rigorous research and testing that regular medicines undergo. One of the hundreds of handsomely paid legislators we have should file a bill in Congress putting the herbals within the ambit of the FDA.

This is where we come in with the good news about herbals. RiteMed, a division of the Filipino multinational United Laboratories, Inc., has decided to join the lucrative herbal medicine industry. But with a difference: You can be sure that each and every herbal being sold by RiteMed has been tested and proven to alleviate, if not cure, the symptoms of some illnesses. Each of them has been approved by the Department of Science and Technology.

Unlike the other herbal companies, it took a while for RiteMed to go into herbals because of challenges along the way.  Producing herbal medicine from out of the identified indigenous plants requires not just the identification of the needed active ingredient and their eventual harvest. It goes beyond that. There are several hurdles that have to be satisfied before one can formulate the herbal tablet or syrup that would deliver the needed medicinal punch.

Aside from monitoring the quality of the soil on which the indigenous plants (earlier identified to have the capability to battle a disease) can grow the same type of plant extract needed for the herbal tablet or syrup, clinical trials are needed. For example, ampalaya leaves from plants grown in Makiling do not necessarily have exactly the same properties as those from Cavite or Ilocos because the soils in which they grow are different.

This is precisely what RiteMed has done: It has partnered with DOST and UP Manila National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants (Nirpromp), both of which have the necessary clinical trials that enabled the company to enter the herbal market, confident that it remains true to its quality image.

RiteMed consulted Nirpromp scientists before it embarked on coming up with lagundi tablets and syrup that alleviate certain ailments. It also surveyed the various sources of lagundi to make sure that they get only the best plant materials. If not propertly handled from harvest to processing, plant materials are prone to bacterial and fungal contamination. Hence. strict quality control protocols have been established.

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