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A Balanced Risk-Benefit Analysis to Determine Human Risks Associated with Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (PA)—The Case of Herbal Medicinal Products Containing St. John’s Wort Extracts (SJW)

Habs, Michael, Binder, Karin, Krauss, Stefan, Müller, Karolina, Ernst, Brigitte, Valentini, Luzia, Koller, Michael
Nutrients 2018 v.10 no.7
Angiospermae, accidents, adverse effects, antidepressants, clinical trials, death, guidelines, ingredients, liver diseases, mutagens, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, risk-benefit analysis, suicide, toxicity, traditional medicine, Germany
Objectives: Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) exist ubiquitously in our environment. More than 6000 plants, about 3% of the world’s flowering plants, are known to synthesize PA. As a consequence, many herbal ingredients, including St. John’s wort (SJW), are contaminated with PA that can possess acute and subchronic toxic effects as well as mutagenic and genotoxic properties. Therefore, the possible benefits of SJW as an herbal remedy against depression need to be weighed against the possible risks of unwanted PA intake. Methods: We searched the literature regarding the current knowledge on PA and evaluated the evidence on the antidepressant effects of quantified SJW extract based on a Cochrane Review and the current practice guidelines on depression. Risks are depicted in form of a risk ladder and benefits in form of an icon array. Results: Evidence from clinical studies indicates that quantified SJW extract is an effective treatment option for mild to moderate depression with fewer side effects than conventional antidepressants. Health statistics from different countries do not quantify cases of death caused by PA intake. However, deaths due to suicide, often triggered by depression, are common (11 in 1000 in Germany in 2015) and rank between fatalities due to liver diseases (16 in 1000) and household accidents (10 in 1000). Conclusions: Quantified SJW extract is a safe and effective treatment option, and its potential of treating depression outweighs the (hypothetical) risk of unwanted PA intake.