Your Life: ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: Just a Load of Hocus Pocus? HEALTH the Recent Death of a Student Using Chinese Herbal Medicine Has Reignited Controversy over Alternative Therapies. with Little Regulation and Scant Evidence of Effectiveness, Are Users Risking Their Health? Charlotte Haigh Investigates

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Byline: Charlotte Haigh

LING Wang, a 25-year-old PhD student, died after taking Chinese herbal medicine to treat a stomach upset and skin rash.

Aninquest last month heard that Ling, from Newcastle, fell into a coma and died shortly after taking the medicine in tea or pill form last August.

One in five Britons uses some kind of complementary therapy, according to an ICM poll, but the industry is largely unregulated and there's little or no evidence that many of the therapies work.

In fact, only osteopathy and chiropractic therapy are covered by regulations insisting that practitioners be qualified with a relevant body.

Other types of practitioners may be registered with a representative body. But Ian Cambury-Smith of the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health says: "Although many of these are ethically sound, there are so many of them that it can be confusing, and standards vary."

The government is considering regulating for herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

This summer, a Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council will start work.

It's a single body that will cover a range of therapies, ensuring its members meet certain criteria and will be governed by a code of ethics.

So in the event of something going wrong, you can make a complaint.

"However, it's voluntary, so a therapist can still practise even if they're not registered," says Ian Cambury-Smith.

"And it has nothing to do with effectiveness, so there's no guarantee that the therapy will help you. But it will help people feel reassured that its practitioners are reputable."

Here we look at the safety of, and the evidence behind, themostpopular therapies...

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbs - as teas, pills or creams - are used for a variety of conditions.

THE EVIDENCE: Some research has found that certain herbal blends could have a benefit.

For example, a study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that a concoction of herbs could help ease eczema.

But it's crucial that you visit a reputable practitioner as some medicines have been found to contain banned substances that could have serious side-effects.

Research at King's College Hospital, London, analysed 11 Chinese herbal creams prescribed for eczema and found that eight contained powerful steroids.

FOR A REPUTABLE PRACTITIONER CONTACT THE REGISTER OF CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE: WWW.RCHM.CO.UK

Homeopathy

Homeopaths claim to be able to treat a wide variety of physical and emotional conditions by treating "like with like".

They believe a substance that in large doses produces the symptoms of a disease will, in small doses, cure it. So it is diluted until little of is left in the remedy, the idea being that dilution enhances its positive effects and removes the negative ones.

For example, urtica urens from the stinging nettle is used for treating skin rashes.

THE EVIDENCE: In 2005 an analysis of several major homeopathy trials published in The Lancet showed that homeopathic remedies had no more effect than a placebo. Sarah Buckinghamof the British Homeopathic

Association claims that the analysis was flawed. She said: "Most independent scientific observers would regard The Lancet paper as inconclusive."

But Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, agrees there's no evidence the remedies work.

"Homeopaths tend to be gentle, understanding people.

In my view, it's this care and attention that helps people feel better," he says.

Chiropractic and osteopathy

Both use spinal manipulation, aiming to detect and treat problems with the joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. "The type of manipulation varies between therapies, and chiro- practors are trained to take X-rays while osteopaths aren't," says Leicester chiropractor Tim Hutchful. …