Last autumn, I felt generally under the weather, as did my husband and daughter. I have always responded well to acupuncture, so on the advice of an acupuncturist friend of a friend, we decided to try taking some Chinese herbs, under the guidance of
In December, the herbalist group recommended that I take the next set of pills, called "Happy Wanderer" to "tonify the blood". That sounded reassuringly minor, a little like taking an iron pill. What, after all, could be dangerous about a remedy with that engaging appellation?
Gingerly I began taking the pills, two the first day and four the next (instead of the recommended six). Immediately I felt spacy and dislocated, with pins and needles running up and down my body and behind my eyes, and a dull, persistent headache in short, a feeling of a drug overdose.
Naturally I quit the pills immediately and felt better for a day, but then the side effects came back, and I couldn't seem to shake them for the following week. My concentration was shot, and the dull ache wouldn't shift. Even on the sixth day the pins and needles were pronounced. Repeatedly I had the sensation that I was going to fall down at any minute.
This incident prompted me to have a word with another respected herbalist. "What's in this stuff?" I said, handing him the Happy Wanderer bottle.
"No wonder," he replied. "All of these herbs have a high level of natural estrogen in them. You're suffering from too much estrogen and possibly withdrawal symptoms."
In Western terms, as a premenopausal woman I had been blasted with hormonal replacement therapy.
When I rang back this friend of a friend and told her, she was rather taken aback to hear what the herbs contained.
It's important to be very specific about the significance of this little incident.This is not intended as an indictment of Chinese medicine or alternative medicine in general.
It could have been that I was one of a rare number of individuals who react to this particular concoction, or an unfortunate misdiagnosis, or a case of herbal overkill, for a condition that righted itself.
The point is, as a Westerner, taking Eastern herbs, I had let my guard down. Taking herbs identified on the bottle only with Chinese and Latin names, I placed myself entirely at the disposal of the knowledge of my therapists. While they undoubtedly knew what they are doing in Chinese medical terms, the actual contents of the herbs apparently proved to be a surprise.
The moral here is all about being a questioning and informed consumer, no matter which medicine you take.
Alternative practitioners need to be highly knowledgeable about the content of remedies and their biological actions in combinations, just as medical doctors need to learn more about the drugs they dispense. After all, the tools of the alternative trade can be every bit as powerful and potentially as dangerous.