Who can help me figure out what is in this medication(?)
September 2, 2011 5:10 PM   Subscribe

A family friend went to a medicine man in South America and received an herbal medicine to heal her son's Aspergers. I am skeptical about such things, and feel she should not give him the medication without knowing what plants are actually in it.

Though she still wants to try, my worries have given her pause, and she has asked me to find someone who could tell us what is in the medicine. I have no idea how to go about this - a chemist? Another herbal doctor? Where would I find them?

The packages are completely unlabeled, and it would be difficult to track down the original medicine man to find out the ingredient list, so the easiest solutions are apparently off the table.

Thanks for your help!
posted by Sakura3210 to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh gosh, don't go to another herbal doctor. The scenario I see playing out there is, "no, no, this won't help your son at all. But can I interest you in my personal blend of overpriced oregano magical Aspergers-curing herbs?"

Are these herbs ground up or do you have full leaves? Because if it's relatively large bits of plant matter, a botanist might be able to help. Does it have any strong fragrance? (Remember, even if you can identify some of the ingredients, there might be a bit of something in there you'll never be able to figure out.)

Best case scenario, she gives him these mystery herbs and they do absolutely nothing. Worst case scenario, he's allergic to an ingredient and he goes into anaphylactic shock and stops breathing. Give your friend a hug, tell her that you know she's just trying to do the best for her son, and beg her to please not give it to him.
posted by phunniemee at 5:22 PM on September 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm also dead against giving it to him, but to answer your question and find out what it contains, I'd ring a local pharmacist and ask them how and where you would be able to get it analysed.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:41 PM on September 2, 2011

How identifiable are the actual plant parts? Is it a blend or just one plant?
posted by salvia at 5:47 PM on September 2, 2011

Response by poster: Trust me, I am in agreement with all of you about not giving him the "medication". His mother is an alternative medicine type (I'm not at all), and this guy really sold her on the whole idea (pseudo-science talk, testimonials from her friends, etc). I'm hoping to convince her that the medication is potentially bad/useless and I figure the best way to do that is by breaking down what's in it.

I unfortunately can't answer questions about the appearance of the "medicine", as I haven't taken a good look at it yet, but should be able to do so tomorrow.
posted by Sakura3210 at 5:49 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might try finding out what tradition the medicine man was from and see if you can contact someone familiar with that tradition, to ask them what kinds of things might be given for this. That could help an analytical chemist/pharmacist constrain the possibilities, which would make it easier to analyze.

And yes, it's entirely possible that this remedy could be full of toxic materials. St. John's Wort and Ephedra are both herbal remedies that I suspect would be likely here, and they both have fairly easily reached toxic doses. Ephedra can be confused with Horsetail (Equisetum) some species of which are toxic.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:59 PM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mr. Papagiorgio's post is a good jumping-off point: if this did have some sort of psycho-active compound, or is part of a regimen that is part of a culture's perceived treatment of this, they would have to experience the full ritual. Such things are meant to be administered within the confines of a culture, and as they do not have this "medicine man" present, there is no way to know if they are doing it "correctly," nor is there anyone to seek out who is an expert on the intended effect.

This, while not acknowledging whether or not you believe it's complete bullshit, at least provides a framework for evaluation within that culture of belief.
posted by mikeh at 6:09 PM on September 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

I should have said, that it MIGHT be Ayahuasca. Obviously, nobody will know exactly what it is...

Arg! It's times like this that I wish there was an edit button.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 6:11 PM on September 2, 2011

Mod note: Folks, the question is "how do I figure out what is in this?" not "Is this good medicine?" Please try to stick to the question and take the third-party judging to the usual places.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 6:21 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

A police forensic lab?
posted by tomswift at 6:29 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, after speaking with the friend, she tells me that the medicine man was involved in Ayurveda, and that some of the herbs (there's three types I think) are apparently meant to purify the blood. I've heard of Ayurveda, and I know there's some tradition behind it - does this change anything?
posted by Sakura3210 at 6:46 PM on September 2, 2011

Best answer: Random Googleing reveals:

*http://www.herbal-ahp.org/hptlc.htm (hover over 'Analytically Testing Services' on the right)
*http://www.pharmacognosy.com/services.htm (contact this person)
*http://foto.pharm.uic.edu/mcp/faculty.htm (Email some people here for advice on testing and finding a lab)
*Contact pharmacists and other chemistry departments for leads and more information.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 6:50 PM on September 2, 2011

I've heard of Ayurveda, and I know there's some tradition behind it - does this change anything?

As far as efficacy or safety? No.

As far as being able to determine what's actually in the package? Perhaps, if the items to be brewed into a tea are still more or less intact, a local person who knows about such practices might be able to give you some information. But that doesn't solve the subsidiary problem of excluding the addition to the items of anything not visible to the naked eye and recognizable as a common item, or the subsidiary problem of determining based upon reliable evidence whether recognized items are safe for human consumption (or consumption by this particular person).
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:51 PM on September 2, 2011

Ayurveda is from the Indian subcontinent. What a 'South American medicine man' is doing marketing ayurveda is an interesting question. Apart from that, this is 'no' on so many levels, including 'curing' Asperger syndrome (it's not a disease), and possibly giving mind-bending hallucinogenics to a child. 'Blood purifiers' could also possibly be strong emetics ...

It's not a question of finding out what is in the medicine, it's a question of being prudent.
posted by carter at 6:54 PM on September 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

Check out the NIH website on Ayurveda.

Check out their links on:
Use Caution With Ayurvedic Products (FDA)
Using Dietary Supplements Wisely
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 6:55 PM on September 2, 2011

Also - this is not about the systems these medicines come from. I might take them myself; I would absolutely not give them to a child.
posted by carter at 6:55 PM on September 2, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have clarified earlier - her son is an older teenager (almost 19).
posted by Sakura3210 at 6:58 PM on September 2, 2011

From the CDC's page on lead in traditional medicines:
Lead has been found in some traditional (folk) medicines used by East Indian, Indian, Middle Eastern, West Asian, and Hispanic cultures. Traditional medicines can contain herbs, minerals, metals, or animal products. Lead and other heavy metals are put into certain folk medicines on purpose because these metals are thought to be useful in treating some ailments. Sometimes lead accidentally gets into the folk medicine during grinding, coloring, or other methods of preparation.
I'm not entirely sure how your friend would go about getting this substance tested for lead (or other heavy metals; I think mercury is a problem with some of these things as well). Maybe a pharmacist would know.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:13 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

State drug labs have machines that can do this testing on unidentified substances, they have to use these machines to verify the substance when the police make a drug bust, even if the substance looks like it's obviously cocaine or marijuana or whatever. I'm not sure how accessible or affordable it would be though to utilize these for private purposes.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:23 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a lab scientist, if I were to take this on as a project, my natural inclination would be work with you to generate a list of what would be most likely to be in there. Then I would find and/or make a series of PCR primers against known chloroplast DNA sequences and that would give you very specific though not very sensitive results.

If there is a local spice shop in your town, you might also bring it to them to see if they could identify at least some of the contents by sight or smell. They would have the trained eye and nose and wouldn't feel the need to sell you alternatives.

What I would do before anything else, however, would be to just walk down to where I know botanists hang out (For me in Columbus there is an atrium with a shit-ton of plants on top of the parking garage across from my lab, though you could just look up botany labs at your local university online). I would just cold stop young knowledgeable looking folk and ask if they are interested in answering a fun question, though you could also email professors asking if they are, know, or have someone who would find helping you fun.

Alternatively, depending on the condition of the packages, you might have luck with germinating and then cultivating their contents. They could have viable seeds.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:25 PM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can try a place like this....www.qclaboratories.com/Food/

I think they do private testing, but don't know how much they cost....
posted by anitanita at 7:26 PM on September 2, 2011

I would imagine it is either Bacopa or Indian Gotu kola. Neither are toxic though I believe bacopa can cause a few digestive problems.
posted by jcworth at 8:00 PM on September 2, 2011

Best answer: "State drug labs have machines that can do this testing on unidentified substances"

There are a bunch of different kinds of big fancy machines that can do this though the fact that you have a mixed sample of compounds/plant materials that would be pretty exotic to most labs would make this less feasible but still doable.

There are chromatographic methods, the one that could possibly be applicable to you would be an HPLC. You would, like with genomic identification, need to have some idea of what you are looking for so you could run standards. The fact that you have a mixture of three different plants (which each have a lot of chemicals) would not make this impossible, but it would make it a mess and a serious pain in the ass.

There are also a whole host of other fancy machines for determining unkowns like GC-MS, IR spectrometers, UV-VIS spectrometers, NMR spectrometers, and X-ray crystallometers, but they wouldn't really be applicable to your mixture of three complex mixtures.

You are probably have better luck with the stamp collecting side of science than the harder stuff.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:01 PM on September 2, 2011

You should be aware that there's a very good chance that you are on a wild goose chase. This is not really what any of the testing laboratories that have been linked so far are for (parse the mystery mixture). It might yield to a direct analysis, if it is composed of identifiable, well characterized components. It is significantly less likely that it will yield to chemical analysis. No matter what it will be costly to perform it and even if the identified components are deemed safe there is the possibility that there is something unsafe in it that didn't get identified in the analysis.

You have no idea if there is anything to what the originator of this product, who is quite possibly a pure con man, said about the product. How many herbs are in it, what their intent is, whether they actually come from a specific tradition. For all we know he pays ten cents a day to bring him what they sweep up under the flower seller's stall.

Give her the better info you got, steer clear of the speculation of what it might or probably is because it is all pretty much baseless given what we really know which is basically nothing, lay out the fundamental problems with this strategy which involves giving someone an unknown substance gotten from a person with no real credentials whom you've no way of getting in touch with and let her figure it out herself. It's probably more or less harmless frankly, unless you consider false hope to be harmful.
posted by nanojath at 8:23 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I think I'm going to drop by a nearby university and see if the botanists and/or chemists can figure out at least some of the plants in the medicine, then figure out what to do next from there. I appreciate the help!
posted by Sakura3210 at 8:23 PM on September 2, 2011

(By "direct analysis" I mean visual, microscopic assessment of the components by someone with a very broad experience of herbal medicinals).
posted by nanojath at 8:24 PM on September 2, 2011

If components are plants chemists will likely be useless to you, though of course if there are components that arn't, analytical chemists are really the only folks who could help you with them. You'll have to look at the "medicine" and figure out who you need.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:17 PM on September 2, 2011

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