For a very long time, many Nigerians have often depended on herbal medicine, popularly called "Agbo", as a remedy to a range of illnesses and diseases. This is common for people living in rural settlements. Agbo has been used as a cure for many diseases and continues to be popular even in urban areas. In recent times, however, attention has been brought to the increasing number of people suffering from Kidney failure. This has been attributed to the indiscriminate use of Herbal medicine (Agbo). This article aims to fully explore the truths, myths, and dangers of taking Agbo to your health.
What is Agbo (Herbal Medicine)?
Herbal medicine (Agbo) are products made from botanicals, or plants, that are used to treat diseases or to maintain health. A medicinal product made from plants and used for curative or preventive purposes is called an herbal supplement.
Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines are also made from plant products, but these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the government. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.
These herbal supplements come in all forms: dried, chopped, powdered, capsule, or liquid, and can be used in various ways, including:
- Swallowed as pills, powders, or tinctures
- Brewed as tea
- Applied to the skin as gels, lotions, or creams
- Added to bath water
Myths About Taking Agbo (Herbal Medicines)
Herbs throughout history have been associated with tradition, mythology, and with medicinal and culinary uses. And there is a lot of information flying across the internet about the use of herbal medicine. It is important to know which of the information is untrue and based largely on myths.
#1: It is always safe
Herbs are safe when used properly at the recommended dose, but natural doesn’t always mean safe. Some herbal medicines are very potent, and care must be taken to use the correct dose, for the proper length of time. There are many gentle tonic herbs that are generally safe and non-toxic. These are safe for most people, barring any contraindications.
Herbs and herbal preparations vary in potency, and many plants are toxic in high doses, but when given in the appropriate dose by a trained herbalist, even some toxic plants can be an effective treatment for certain conditions.
#2: You need to use it for months
Many assume herbs will only work when used in large quantities, for long periods of time. All herbs work differently and depend upon what it is they are being used to treat.
For chronic conditions, this may be necessary, but in the most common cases even taking one dose of the recommended herb can have significant results or even immediate relief.
#3: It does not have side effects because it is natural.
Any conventional medication can have side effects. These side effects are described and reported after drug trials and research studies have been conducted. Side effects are further reported and evaluated after the marketing of the medication.
In contrast to conventional medications, unconventional treatments (such as herbs) have little or no actual scientific basis so doctors can guide their patients regarding proper usage or potential toxicity. There are no standardized references and most of the herbal formulations have not been analyzed, are not uniform, and have not been quality controlled. One batch can be very different from the next.
#4: Because it is natural, it cannot expire.
As with all medicines, herbs have expiration dates and must be stored properly in order to preserve them. Most herbs will need to be kept in dry, mild temperatures, away from direct sunlight. And as you know the energy from the sunlight causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the molecules of carbon dioxide and water and reorganizes them to make the sugar (glucose) and oxygen gas in plants. Exposing the herbs to the sun might cause further chemical reactions and might gradually make them harmful or toxic for intake.
#5: Anyone can sell herbs.
Not just anyone can become a herbal doctor or practitioner. Like any other job in the medical field, holistic medical professionals have to go through extensive schooling and training. They have studied in fields like biochemistry, pharmacology, anatomy, and pathology. Aspiring holistic health practitioners also have to learn about counseling, botanical medicine, nutrition, and more.
#6: All herbs are fine to consume with all other medications
This belief can be potentially dangerous as there are three ways in which herbal and prescription medications can interact.
- Both medications used to treat the same condition can have an exaggerated effect, with either good or bad results,
- The two medications can have opposite effects and therefore prevent either from being an effective treatment,
- The herbal remedy may limit the absorption of prescription medication in the body.
The combination of the two types of medication could also cause alternative or increased side effects.
The truth about Herbal Medicines is that they can be potent and effective when used in the right measure.
Side Effects of Taking Agbo (Herbal Medicines)
Upon exposure to a certain level of herbal toxins and the kidneys are unable to pass excess urine, and the waste product is the condition termed nephrotoxicity. In this condition, there is an elevation in blood electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium. This condition starts temporarily but, if not detected earlier, could be severe.
The reason for nephrotoxicity (Kidney damaging toxins) after herbal medicine intake may be the addition of toxins during careless preparation, the addition of adulterants, heavy metals, and some pharmaceutical products intentionally to reduce cost or increase the efficacy.
Hepatotoxicity, termed after two Greek words Hepar and Toxicon meaning liver and poison, respectively, may be defined as liver damage due to a chemical, drug, herb, or dietary supplement. Some drugs when taken simultaneously react together and cause liver damage. The damage can be noticed by stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, change in urine and stool color, jaundice, rash, frequent tiredness, weakness, fatigue, and fever.
Cardiotoxicity is a term used for damage to the heart or altering heart functions. It is a state in which there is an alteration in the electrophysiological function of the heart or cardiac muscle damage, which weakens the heart causing inefficient pumping and circulation of blood. This can be detected by symptoms such as dry, non-productive cough, inflammation of ankles, hand, feet, and neck veins; irregular heartbeat; tachycardia; cardiomegaly; weakness; vertigo, etc.
Cardiotoxic agents (Heart damaging toxins) include chemotherapeutic drugs of anthracycline class, alkylating agents such as cyclophosphamide, cisplatin, chlormethine, mitomycin, etc
These agents can lead to a number of cardiac events including changes in blood pressure, thrombosis, arrhythmias, inflammation of the myocardium, and pericardium leading to cardiac arrest or failure.
Neurotoxicity is a term used for a state in which there is physical brain damage due to exposure to neurotoxin, a substance that disrupts or kills neurons, and in turn alters the activity of the nervous system. Signs and symptoms of this type of toxicity are anxiety, depression, limb weakness and numbness, impaired vision, headache, sexual dysfunction, and behavioral changes. The reasons may be chemotherapy, radiation therapy, drug abuse, organ transplants, exposure to heavy metals, some food additives, pesticides, cosmetics, cleaning solvents, and naturally occurring substances.
Some common plants used as herbal medicines have potentially neurotoxic effects. Among them are Papaver somniferum (opium), Catharanthus roseus (Vinca), Datura stramonium (thorn apple), Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Cannabis indica (marijua‐ na), Conium maculatum (hemlock), Coscinium fenestratum (yellow vine), and Brugmansia species (angel’s trumpet
Cutaneous toxicity is a term used for an evident adverse effect such as skin irritation, inflammation, or rashes of epidermal growth factor receptor caused by exposure to a plant, chemical, or environmental factor. Skin is the largest body organ and a protective barrier comprising a layer of dead cells and several layers of living cells. When an irritating substance reaches these living cells, these sensitive cells respond with inflammation or dermatitis. Inflammation has four parts, which include redness, pain, heat, and swelling. The skin toxicity is easiest to detect as the reaction is immediately observed.
When a photoactive chemical produced by plants comes into skin contact, absorbed and activated by sunlight, this type of reaction occurs. The intensity varies depending upon time and amount of exposure.
A common source of skin toxicity is food and cosmetics, and others are medicated lotions, balms, creams, inhalers, and essential oils. A variety of herbal materials is available in all of the abovementioned cosmetics and medicated products.
Possible ways to reduce the toxic effects of taking agbo (herbal medicines)
Natural substances are the best healers, but according to Paracelsus (1493–1541), "all substances are poison and that’s only the correct dose, which makes them a remedy." Here are some ways you can reduce the toxic effects of taking agbo (herbal medicines).
a. All herbal medicines should not be considered safe unless prescribed by a registered herbalist.
b. Label of the herbal product must be checked for a seal of regulatory authority and expiry date.
c. If consuming herbal medicine with allopathic medicines, then inform your doctor.
d. Avoid the use of herbal products along with drugs having narrow therapeutic indexes such as warfarin, digoxin, cyclosporine, and theophylline.
e. Avoid using herbal products containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury.
f. If a female user is a pregnant or a nursing mother, then caution taking herbal medicines such as black cohosh, chamomile, Dong Quai root, feverfew, ginger, kava kava, and St. John’s wort.
g. Overuse of herbal medicine intake should be avoided and dosing instructions must be followed
Herbal medicines are chemically effective and have healing properties. But being "natural" doesn't necessarily mean they're safe for you to take.
Just like conventional medicines, herbal medicines will have an effect on the body and can be potentially harmful if not used correctly. They should therefore be used with the same care and respect as conventional medicines.
If you're consulting your doctor or pharmacist about health matters, or are about to undergo surgery, always tell them about any herbal medicines you're taking.
And if you have been taking Agbo a lot lately, you are advised to book a health check up to be sure you are not running risk of any side effects.