Britons are spending £126 million a year on herbal medicines but herbalists say that many are endangering their health by taking inappropriate remedies, reported British newspaper The Independent.
The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, which the report claims is the world's oldest body of practising herbalists, said people are buying over-the-counter products that could end up doing them more harm than good.
Institute president Trudy Norris said some people took no advice on which remedies were right for them and others risked serious side- effects by taking herbs at the same time as conventional drugs.
The group said that some consumers buy poor-quality products, with the wrong balance of ingredients or containing chemical extracts in higher concentrations than in natural plants. Other remedies, particularly Chinese ones, were contaminated with steroids and heavy metals.
The warning from the institute, which represents 550 qualified herbalists, follows a number of alerts about the safety of herbal medicines. Kava kava has now been banned in several countries, after being associated to liver damage, some of which led to death. The herb, along with St John's wort and ginkgo biloba, has however been shown to interfere with drugs for heart conditions, asthma, depression and HIV and the institute noted that many
Norris told The Independent:"There are some obvious limitations to buying over-the-counter remedies, since herbs can sometimes cause more harm than good if used inappropriately, just like other kinds of medicine.
"While we are not against commercial herbal remedies, bought for self-medication, we do urge people...to find out as much as possible before self-prescribing. This is particularly important if you are pregnant, taking any other form of medication, or taking over-the-counter remedies for anything other than minor ailments. It's preferable to see a qualified medical herbalist," she added.
More than 80 per cent of all herbal medicines sold in Britain are unlicensed, according to the report. Last year, Britain's Medicines Control Agency said it could give no assurances about the safety of many Chinese remedies after a number of products were found to contain "dangerous and illegal" ingredients.
Mercury and arsenic had been found in some remedies while eczema creams have been in the news since some were found to contain prescription-only steroids.
The institute has just launched a herbal medicine awareness week to encourage consumers to seek more advice and for manufacturers and retailers to be more responsible.