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Popular Weight Loss Herbal Remedies Linked to Cancer

Tim Boyer's picture

Aristolochic acid comes primarily from the plant Aristolochia, and is found in a significant number of herbal remedies and weight loss products. Back in 2001 the FDA issued a consumer warning that a natural component of many botanical plants contains aristolochic acid, which had been associated with severe kidney damage and was traced to patients who used some herbal remedies and weight loss products.

More recently, however, researchers announce in the current issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) that herbal remedies and weight loss products that are common and popular in both Asia and the U.S. contains aristolochic acid that not only can cause kidney damage, but result in cancer of the upper urinary tract as well.

In a study of 151 upper urinary tract cancer patients in Taiwan, Arthur Grollman, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Pharmacological Sciences at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, in collaboration with an international team of scientists, concluded that exposure to aristolochic acid contained in herbal remedies and weight loss products is the number one contributor to upper urinary tract cancer in Taiwan. In Taiwan, the number of cases of upper urinary tract cancer is the highest worldwide and a global region where herbal remedies are widely used.

In a previous study, Dr. Grollman was involved in the discovery of the source of Balkan endemic nephropathy—a kidney disease that affects people living in rural areas of Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia that progresses to kidney failure and in many cases upper urinary tract cancer. The source of the disease was found to be due to eating bread made of wheat that was contaminated with aristolochic acid from the plant Aristolochic clematitis, also known as birthwort.

Birthwort is derived from its Latin name translated as meaning “best childbirth” and is reported to be thusly named due to an early belief called “The Doctrine of Signatures” where a name is given based on the belief that the shape of a plant is due to the “creator” leaving signs to help mankind discover a medicinal use of a plant. In the case of birthwort, it possesses a small yellow flower with a bulb at one end and a tube and a trumpet-shaped opening at the other end, which was taken to be a representation of a womb and birth canal. Reportedly, Pliny the Elder recommended eating the plant with beef immediately after conception to ensure the birth of a male child.

The Balkan endemic nephropathy study led Dr. Grollman and colleagues to look for other areas where upper urinary tract cancer and consumption of aristolochic acid-containing plants or derivatives of, could be found. National Health Insurance data in Taiwan revealed widespread use of aristolochic acid in herbal remedies and weight loss products where there is also a disproportional incidence of upper urinary tract cancer.

“We believe our latest research highlights the importance of a long-overlooked disease that affects many individuals in Taiwan, and, by extension, in China and other countries worldwide, where Aristolochic herbal remedies traditionally have been used for medicinal purposes,” says Dr. Grollman.

In spite of past warnings by the FDA about the danger of consuming herbal remedies and weight loss products that contain aristolochic acid, many are still available on the internet. Below is a list of 16 products and their sources that the FDA has found that contains aristolochic acid and warns consumers that they should watch for products with the words "Aristolochia," "Bragantia" or "Asarum" listed as ingredients on the label.

1. Rheumix: PharmaBotanixx, Irvine, CA (Distributor), Sun Ten Laboratories, Inc., Irvine, CA (Manufacturer)

2. BioSlim Doctor's Natural Weight Loss System Slim Tone Formula: Thane International, LaQuinta, CA (Distributor)

3. Prostatin: Herbal Doctor Remedies, Monterey Park, CA (Distributor)

4. Fang Ji Stephania: Lotus Herbs Inc., LaPuente, CA (Distributor)

5. Mu Tong Clematis armandi: Lotus Herbs Inc., LaPuente, CA (Distributor)

6. Temple of Heaven Chinese Herbs Radix aristolochiae: Mayway Corporation, Oakland, CA (Distributor) and Almira Alchemy, Alachua, FL (Distributor)

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7. Meridian Circulation: East Earth Herb Inc. (Brand name Jade Pharmacy), Eugene, OR

8. Qualiherb Chinese Herbal Formulas Dianthus Formulas Ba Zheng San: QualiHerb (Division of Finemost), Cerritos, CA (Distributor)

9. Clematis & Carthamus Formula 21280: QualiHerb (Division of Finemost), Cerritos, CA (Distributor)

10. Virginia Snake Root, Cut Aristolochia serpentaria: Penn Herb Co., Philadelphia, PA (Manufacturer)

11. Green Kingdom Akebia Extract: Green Kingdom Herbs, Bay City, MI (Manufacturer) Ava Health, Grove City, OH (Distributor)

12. Green Kingdom Stephania Extract: Green Kingdom Herbs, Bay City, MI Ava Health (Distributor)

13. Neo Concept Aller Relief: BMK International, Inc., Wellesley, MA (Distributor), Sun Ten Labs, Irvine, CA (Manufacturer)

14. Mu Tong Clematis armandi: Botanicum.com, Winnipeg, Canada and Pembina, ND

15. Fang Ji Stephania: Botanicum.com, Winnipeg, Canada and Pembina, ND

16. Stephania tetrandra, roots, whole: Ethnobotanical, Racine, WI

The FDA advises consumers who have ever taken any of the aforementioned herbal remedies and weight loss products at any time in their lives to contact their physician immediately so that they can be evaluated for their risk of developing cancer.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia


“Aristolochic acid-associated urothelial cancer in Taiwan” PNAS April 9, 2012; Chung-Hsin Chen et al.

“Aristolactam-DNA adducts are a biomarker of environmental exposure to aristolochic acid” Kidney International (2012) 81, 559–567; Bojan Jelaković et al.

”Aristolochic Acid: FDA Warns Consumers to Discontinue Use of Botanical Products that Contain Aristolochic Acid” FDA document