06 November 2008

Straits Times features seahorses as medicine without mentioning environmental impact

Seahorses as "Nature's way" and among "nature's more popular supplements" was featured in Strait's Times health segment today.Although there seems some attempt to balance 'Western' warnings with 'Eastern' support for these cures, there was a long list of uses of various natural products (see below).

Illustrated with photos of dead seahorses on a stick, was this write up about seahorses ...
"Mr Wu Yue, TCM physician at Raffles Chinese Medicine, said that in TCM, seahorses are considered 'warm' and are used to increase and balance energy flows within the body. They are also used to treat many conditions including impotence and infertility, heart disease, respiratory disorders and skin ailments."
There was no mention about the devastating impact of over-collection of seahorses on wild populations.

Seahorses are listed as CITES II (which means their international trade is monitored) and are considered globally vulnerable.

Seahorses are naturally uncommon because they reproduce slowly and seldom travel far from one spot. Those faithful to their partners may take some time before taking on a new mate. Usually, in the wild only a handful of babies survive from each batch of eggs. Being slow swimmers without a free-swimming larval stage, seahorses don’t spread quickly to new places. Being slow-moving and defenceless, seahorses are easily collected. Efforts to farm seahorses have had limited success and often merely involves the equally destructive collection of pregnant males.

More about our seahorses and status of seahorses on the wildfact sheets of wildsingapore.

More details about the status of seahorses and efforts to protect them on Project Seahorse (http://seahorse.fisheries.ubc.ca/). The website lists this about buying dried seahorses.
If you must buy dried seahorses, ask your dealer to purchase species that are least threatened (such information is gradually emerging). Refuse to buy pregnant males, since their young have died with them, reducing the prospects for population recovery. Avoid pre-packaged medicines containing seahorses as these often include juveniles that have been collected before they can reproduce.
Other natural products highlighted in the article is Cordyceps. Overharvesting of this has threatened delicate ecosystems in Tibet. Articles with more details are below:
Bird's nest was also featured. I don't really know enough about the issues surrounding that to make a comment, but I suspect overharvesting is also having an impact on wild populations.

Nature's way - Cover story: Naturally good?
Straits Times 6 Nov 08;

Natural health remedies are back in fashion. Their efficacy may be debatable but there is no doubt about their rising popularity

How effective are so-called natural health supplements and remedies from both the East and the West?

Many Asians swear by ginseng, for instance, while exotic names like St John's wort and echinacea hail from the West.

Western-trained physicians and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners may or may not see eye to eye on their health-giving claims.

However, confidence in the efficacy of these mostly plant-based remedies is rooted in folklore. After all, nature holds the secrets to good health, it is said.

Since their early discovery, the roots of the wild ginseng plant have been conferred extraordinary healing powers. The snow lotus, found on the remote slopes of the eastern Himalayas, has near mythical medicinal 'powers'.

In the West, long before the Europeans stepped onto the North American continent, Native Americans had acquired an extensive knowledge of healing herbs.

In modern times, with mass production and the marketing of synthethic drugs, pharmacognosy began to fall out of fashion. Pharmacognosy is the study of drugs that come from plants.

Ironically, helped by marketing, the herbal way to health is back in fashion and business appears to be booming.

However, the US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, states that it is vital for consumers to know that just because an herbal supplement is labelled 'natural' does not mean it is safe or without any harmful effects. For example, the herbs kava and comfrey have been linked to serious liver damage.

It is also important to consult one's doctor before using an herbal supplement, especially if one is taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications. Some herbal supplements are known to interact with medications in ways that cause health problems.

In Singapore, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) website states that health supplements can be imported and sold without a licence from the HSA. Health supplement dealers are, however, advised to comply with the guidelines for health supplements.

HSA's working definition of 'health supplement' is that of a product that is used to supplement a diet, with benefits beyond those of normal nutrients, and/or to support or maintain the healthy functions of the human body.

A health supplement can contain substances derived from sources including non-human animal and botanical material.

While their efficacy may be vehemently debated, their popularity is not in doubt. Some 36 per cent of adults in the US use some form of what is called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), said a 2004 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

In Singapore, pharmacies and health shops sell supplements from crushed pearl powder for the complexion to horny goat's weed capsules for male virility.

Many parents also make their children take natural supplements regularly - to boost their immune system, brain power, or just to keep them in general good health.

Madam Agnes Fong, a 47-year-old housewife and a mother of two teenagers, regularly boils ginseng tonic for her family to keep them 'in the pink of health'.

She said: 'Sometimes, I also buy royal jelly for the kids and my husband. However, I can't buy it too often because it's expensive.'

Mr Wu Yue, a TCM physician at Raffles Chinese Medicine, said that Asian ginseng has 'warming' qualities while the American variety is 'cooling'. He added that ginseng has many benefits, including the ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, strengthen one's immune system and improve one's mental agility.

However, he cautioned that people with certain medical conditions such as insomnia and high blood pressure should consult a TCM physician about consuming Asian ginseng as 'an overdose may lead to serious side effects such as stroke'.

The US National Institutes of Health also advises those who wish to take a herbal or botanical product to first consult a doctor. Like drugs, such herbal or botanical preparations have chemical and biological activity and may cause side effects or interact with certain medications leading to problems.

Dr Phuah Huan Kee, a senior consultant at Singapore Baby and Child Clinic, said that children who have a healthy diet generally do not need to take vitamin or health supplements.

He said: 'Supplements like spirulina and royal jelly are touted as having the ability to improve one's health or build up the immune system but there is no convincing scientific evidence to support this yet.'

Dr Phuah said that to boost a child's mental development, it is better for parents to spend quality time interacting with him. They should also cultivate healthy eating habits in their children.

He said: 'Encouraging children to consume a variety of foods rich in vitamins, minerals and omega oils is better than relying on supplements.'

Jovanda Biston
Nature's way: Common cures
Straits Times 6 Nov 08;
JOVANDA BISTON lists some of nature's more popular supplements
Herbs were the first 'drugs' and primary medicine used by man.

Medicine men and folk healers learnt the medicinal use of herbs and animal matter by observing their effects on humans. Medicine has since come a long way from such simple trial and error.

Here are some common health supplements used in Western alternative medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and some significant related research findings.


Dried seahorses are commonly used in TCM cures.

Mr Wu Yue, TCM physician at Raffles Chinese Medicine, said that in TCM, seahorses are considered 'warm' and are used to increase and balance energy flows within the body. They are also used to treat many conditions including impotence and infertility, heart disease, respiratory disorders and skin ailments.

Cordyceps sinensis

Chinese cordyceps is the result of a parasitic relationship between a moth caterpillar and a special fungus.

Mr Wu said that cordyceps have major uses in TCM including in the prevention of cardiovascular problems, boosting the immune system, increasing libido and strengthening the lungs. However, he said there is insufficient scientific research on the safety of children, pregnant or lactating women consuming cordyceps.

Bird's nest

Mr Wu Yue, TCM physician at Raffles Chinese Medicine, said that bird's nest - often prepared as a soupy tonic - is believed to have health-enhancing and anti-ageing properties.

However, he also said that it may be a common cause of food-induced anaphylaxis - a severe whole-body allergy - in children.

Dr Phuah Huan Kee, senior consultant at Singapore Baby and Child Clinic, said allergic reactions to bird's nest can sometimes be life-threatening.


Gingko biloba is a popular herbal supplement widely promoted as a memory enhancer.

Last month, The New York Times reported that new research suggests a daily dose of gingko biloba may help prevent brain damage after a stroke.

The findings, published online in the medical journal Stroke, have been shown only in mice but researchers said the studies supported theories that the herb may help stroke patients.

St John's wort

This plant has been traditionally used to treat anxiety, depression and mental disorders.

Last month, it was reported that an analysis of previous studies found that St John's wort can effectively treat symptoms of major depression.

Extracts of the herb tested in different trials were better than placebos and as effective as standard anti-depressants with fewer side effects, the researchers reported in the Cochrane Reviews, a medical and scientific studies journal.

Fish oils

Fish oils are a source of omega-3 fatty acids and are thought to be beneficial for the heart.

Studies on fish oil therapy have had mixed results. In September, The New York Times reported that a clinical trial in Australia, published last year in The Journal Of Developmental And Behavioral Pediatrics, found improvements in parents' ratings of their children's hyperactivity and inattention but no difference in teachers' assessments.

Meanwhile, an Oxford-Durham study in Britain, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2005, reported remarkable improvements in reading and spelling among children treated with omega-3 fatty acids.

It is important to buy only purified pharmaceutical-grade fish oil to minimise the risk of mercury contamination.


Parts from the echinacea plant have traditionally been used to treat or prevent colds, flu and other infections.

The Los Angeles Times reported in February that an analysis last year published in the journal Lancet Infectious Disease showed that in well-designed studies, the Echinacea purpurea species shortened colds by an average of 1.4 days and reduced the odds of getting a cold by 58 per cent.

A Cochrane review concluded that only Echinacea purpurea products showed any promise in treating colds and only when they contained the above-ground parts of the plant - not the root.

Echinacea products can contain the roots, leaves or flowers of any of three species of the plant (purpurea, pallida or angustifolia), in dried, powdered or extracted form.

Evening primrose oil

Evening primrose oil contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid. It is used for many conditions including eczema and to alleviate breast pain or menstrual discomfort.

The US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that evening primrose oil may have modest benefits for eczema and may be useful for rheumatoid arthritis and breast pain. However, study results are mixed and most studies are small and not well-designed.

Tian qi

In TCM, the tian qi plant is said to improve blood circulation and to lower cholesterol. However, it is generally regarded as unsafe for pregnant women.

Yin yang huo (horny goat weed)

This herb is said to help prevent impotence and increase one's libido.

In September, Italian researchers found that yin yang huo, known in English as horny goat weed, could be a promising alternative to Viagra for impotent men.

The researchers modified a compound in the plant called icariin and found that it blocked the erection-inhibiting enzyme that restricts blood flow around the body - including to the penis - as well as Viagra did.

Further tests on animals and humans are needed but the researchers said that the extract from the herb represents a potential new erectile dysfunction treatment with fewer side effects.

Crushed pearl powder

Crushed pearl power, deemed good for the complexion, is consumed or used as an ingredient in face creams.

Mr Carl Wong, head acupuncturist at Healthway Medical Group's TCM Wellness, said crushed pearl powder has anti-ageing properties, can smoothen and brighten the skin and is also a cure for insomnia.

1 comment:

  1. I was very disturbed when I saw the newspaper article with the dried seahorses. They (the TCM practitioners and the people who take these seahorses) should stop this "nonsense" cures that benefit no one, especially the seahorses.



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