St. John's Wort
Fails Potency Tests

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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August 31, 1998 ~   Web posted at: 11:57 a.m. EST

Supplements immune from government regulation: Industry giant disputes findings

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Several of the nation's leading brands of St. John's Wort, a popular herbal remedy for depression, are not as potent as advertised on their labels, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. In an independent test commissioned by the Times, three of 10 brands of St. John's Wort had no more than about half the potency listed on the label.

Four other brands had less than 90 percent of the potency listed, the Times reported.   Health experts told the newspaper that a significant number of depressed people may be pinning hopes on products too weak to help them even when taken at the recommended dosages.

"How is it possible to appropriately regulate a treatment regimen if you can't even be sure of the dosage?" said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a research psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, who believes in St. John's Wort's mood-elevating properties.

"You're using this product for important reasons and you want to know you're getting what you're supposed to be getting", he said.   "It's quite important that there should be truth in advertising."

The findings raise concerns over the booming herbal market.  Sales of St. John's Wort and other botanical remedies, including ginseng, ginkgo biloba, echinacea and saw palmetto may reach $4.3 billion this year, according to Nutrition Business Journal.  Sally Guthrie, a University of Michigan pharmacy professor, said one concern is that,   unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal supplements do not undergo government scrutiny before marketing.   The Food and Drug Administration can seize dietary supplements that turn out to be harmful, fraudulent or improperly promoted.   So people taking St. John's Wort can't be assured from batch to batch and manufacturer to manufacturer that they're getting the same quality or amount", she said.

St. John's Wort, a weed also known as hypericum, has a long record as a nerve tonic.   The golden flower, with its extract hypericin, has long been used in folk medicine.   In the study the Times commissioned, 10 pills were sampled from each of three containers of one lot of each product.   The products were identified only with a code, so the laboratory would not know the brand being tested.   Five independent experts who reviewed the research procedures said the approach was sound.

One of the lowest-scoring products sampled, with about 20 percent of the labeled potency, was from Sundown Herbals, a division of Rexall, the nation's No. 1 distributor of dietary supplements. (at that time, at least)

Deborah Shur Trinker, Sundown's vice president of regulatory affairs, responded to the findings by saying they were "false" and "misleading".   In a letter to the Times, Ms. Trinker said the tests involved too few pills for the findings to be significant.   She said an independent lab hired by Sundown had found the product to be 100 percent potent.   Two of the other low scoring companies, Pure Source and Futurebiotics, declined to comment.   Officials of Trader's, a Southern California market chain, said they would stop selling the St. John's Wort brands that tested poorly.

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